BLOG: Thoughts on God

Excerpts from an unfinished (undated) manuscript written by Rev. John Dietrich, sometime well after his retirement from First Unitarian Society in 1938, and before his death in 1957. Find the full 33-page manuscript here.

His background philosophy

For many years, I believed and taught a philosophy and religion, which I called Humanism — a religion that was man-centered rather than God-centered, a doctrine that man has within him the ability to work out his own salvation if only he will call it forth and use it. I did not believe that the particular theory of the universe which man may hold was important. I believed that it was man’s business, regardless of his belief or unbelief concerning God, to use his intelligence and his energy to develop human personality to the limit of its capacity, and to create a social order in which this would be easy and not difficult. I believed that if we could coordinate all the new ideas, new idealism, new methods and new values that have been brought to light as the byproducts of the sciences, philosophies, religions, arts and practical adventures of the modern mind, and use them wisely in the rearing of our families, the administering of our schools, the running of our governments, our industries and our professions, we might remove most of the evils which tend to destroy us. Man’s chief business was to discover and disclose the unused resources of vitality and power in human nature and in our civilization, and suggest a working technique for using them. It was not a philosophy of either blind optimism or dark despair, but it did believe that we are the architects of our own future and within certain limits of our environment and of our own natures, we could gradually fashion it to our desires.

His shift in thinking

I still think that the positive side of that program is valid – its insistence upon the enrichment of human life in its every form, but its negative side, cutting itself off from all cosmic relationship and denying or ignoring every influence outside of humanity itself, was and is very shortsighted and ineffectual. I see now how my utter reliance upon science and reason and my contempt for any intuitive insights and intangible values, which are the very essence of art and religion, was a great mistake.

… I do not assert that I have made a discovery. But I am exploring. I am a finite intelligence reaching out for a reality that extends infinitely beyond me. The further I go the more I am conscious of the inconceivable vastness that lies beyond the borders of our knowledge. But we try to express our attitude toward it by symbols and myths, through which we make some contact with it, but we must not identify these with the reality itself. We get occasional glimpses through the curtain of mystery – sometimes from the search of the scientists, more often from the intuition of the mystics, but no humble and honest person would have the temerity to attempt to describe it and claim that his description represented the reality.

I would not attempt to define it or even explain its workings, but I believe that by meditation and reflection, we can experience its presence and bring ourselves into harmony, in rapport with it. I have become convinced that this all-penetrating and all-embracing spiritual power, in spite of all the ups and downs of evolution and of human history, is slowly but surely driving toward excellence in every form.

Structure of Universe?

I am convinced that there is at least a trend, a forward pushing principle… I have come to the conclusion that our life on this planet is not the result of mere chance, the succession of lucky coincidences. Somehow behind it and part of it there has been an irresistible organic drive toward an ideal end…

It was natural in earlier times that men should think of God as an absolute monarch, all-wise and all-powerful. To them the world was a finished product, which had been created at some time and was then left to run according to certain fixed laws. But a tremendous revolution in human thought occurred when the theory of evolution was established. We learned then that this is not a fixed static world, but an organic world, which is constantly growing and changing all the time, and the old figure of a machine running according to fixed laws is displaced by that of the growing plant.

John Fiske described the change in our point of view when he said: “[The] simile of the watch must be replaced by the simile of the flower. The universe is not a machine, but an organism with an indwelling principle of life. It was not made, but has grown.” So the world is at every level, limited, imperfect, incomplete.

Why then may we not assume that God is similar to his universe? Perhaps he too is evolving and growing all of the time… [it] helps to answer a good many questions, such as the problem of evil, which the older absolutist concept was never able to explain satisfactorily. This theory assumes the immanence of God, and suggests that God needs our cooperation and help for the fulfillment of his purposes, and this greatly emphasizes the importance of human life. So we may think of God not as the goal but the road, not the victory but the struggle.

On Atheism

Frequently the repudiation of God is the repudiation of a kind of God that deserves to be repudiated… In most cases I think atheism is largely a difference of vocabulary. It drops the word “God,” but selects another and imbues it with the essential qualities of Godhood. Vitalism, order, energy, cause, intelligence.

Practically everyone believes in an indwelling spirit or energy in the universe, which they call by different names. It is the “Everlasting Yea” of Thomas Carlyle; it is “the Categorical Imperative” of Immanual Kant; it is “the Will to live” of Schopenhauer, and the “Will to Power” of Nietzsche; it is the “Absolute” of the Platonist; it is the “potent felt interior command” and the “urge and ardor” of Walt Whitman; it is the “power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness” of Matthew Arnold; it is the “passionate aspiration after the perfect from which all great work springs” of Bertrand Russell; it is the “presence that disturbs… with… elevated thoughts” of Wordsworth; it is the “Elan Vital” of Bergson and the “Vital Force” of Bernard Shaw; it is the Force of the scientist and the God of the religionist.”

… So whether they call it force or power or energy; mind or will or love; truth or beauty or good, they are using different terms to describe the great Reality which is in all and though all.

On personal evolution

I would take no pride in belonging to that group of men whose ways of thinking were set in their youth and who react at sixty as they did at twenty. I pride myself in thinking that I have made some progress in thought. If I thought exactly as I did 40 years ago, it would perhaps be a sign that I have not given those ideas enough attention.”

… All of history has taught us that… the placement of man or the state at the heart of the universe results in a paralyzing self-glorification and mass selfishness, and the first signs of it are already frighteningly evident. It is high time to realize that the man-society relationship is not enough, but in order to save our civilization we need to restore the man-universe relationship… whereby man may regain his spiritual inheritance, which he has lost during this materially prosperous scientific and technological age, in which he has developed a dangerous self-sufficiency… Our country, and in fact the world, has sunk to a new low ethically and spiritually. Opportunism has displaced ethics, violence selfishness has overcome altruism, and a crass materialism has supplanted all spiritual values until our civilization stands on the brink of disaster for want of moral integrity and spiritual fibre.

On morality

I believe the religious experience is not an exceptional thing reserved for privileged souls, nor exceptional even in the sense that it occurs only at rare moments in life. It is the normal experience of the ordinary man, grasped in its entirety and deeply felt.… In short, I believe that all human experience, when deeply understood, turns out to be spiritual.

… Morality has in it something permanent and yet is subject to change. The principles are always the same, but the way in which they are applied at different times is somewhat determined by the circumstances… We can still believe that the moral life is rooted in the cosmos… I think that we must believe that our values, our moral ideals, are not mere empty conceits, mere products of human assertion, but are indicative of the true nature of reality.

… The conviction that the whole of which we are a part shares with us in ideal-achieving capacity gives indispensable courage and comfort.

What is life?

… What is life? We know it only as animating force appearing in matter. It is intangible, not to be measured, and known to us only as it manifests itself in and through matter. Whether it exists or could exist apart from matter no one knows because it has never been identified apart from matter… Even though science may throw doubts about things that cannot be seen or touched, it certainly denies these doubts by asserting unseen things all about us, more active than the seen. It tells of atoms never seen, yet assures us that they are about the most active things in the universe.

… Water only becomes a mighty force as it vanishes into steam, and still more powerful when dissolved into its elements, for one of those invisible hydrogen atoms, we are told, is the mightiest of all forces. Gasoline in its liquid form is powerless and harmless, but when it evaporates into an invisible gas it propels most of the wheels of modern industry. So matters seems to become vigorous by vanishing, and to become most active when on the edge of annihilation. The evidence of things growing active when they slip beyond the reach of sense and science gives hope that a human life may survive in some form even though we may not see or touch it after the dissolution of the body.

… Life has been defined as a function of matter, like the flame of a candle, and we are told that when the flame is snuffed out the function ceases and no longer exists; yet that flame has released energy in the forms of light and heat, which is not and cannot be destroyed.


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