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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Personality of God

By William Torrey Harris (1835–1909)

[Born in South Killingly, Conn., 1835. Died in Providence, R. I., 1909. The North American Review. 1880.]

IN the idea of God, man defines for himself his theory of the origin and destiny of the world. The whence and the whither of nature and of man are involved in this idea, and through it, therefore, are determined his theoretical views and his practical activities. If he believes that this supreme principle is blind fate, unconscious force, or something devoid of intelligence and will, this belief will constantly modify all his thoughts and deeds, and ultimately shape them into harmony with his faith. If, on the other hand, he regards this supreme principle as a conscious personality, as absolute intelligence and will, this view will likewise shape his thoughts and deeds, but with a radically different result from that of the other just stated. The former theory is unfriendly to the persistence and triumph of human beings, or of any rational beings whatever, either as a principle of explanation or as a ground of hope. It will not account for the origin of conscious beings, showing how conscious reason is involved in unconscious being, as one among its potentialities; still less can it permit the persistent existence of conscious individualities, for that would admit consciousness to be the higher principle, and not a mere phase or potentiality of unconscious being. Even if conscious individuals could emanate from an unconscious first principle, they would be finite and transitory phases, mere bubbles rising to the surface and breaking into nothing. The activity of the first principle—and all conceptions of the first principle must regard it as active—must be in accordance with its own nature, must tend to shape all things so as to correspond to that nature. For activity is expression; that which acts utters itself on that upon which it acts. It gives rise to new modifications, and these are its own expression; it again modifies, through its continued action upon the object, the modification which it had previously caused, and thus secures a more perfect expression of itself.

An unconscious absolute would continually express itself in unconscious individualities, or, if there were conscious individualities upon which it could act, its modifications would be continually in the direction of an obliteration of the element of consciousness. On the other hand, the activity of a conscious absolute would tend continually to the elevation of all unconscious beings, if there were any, toward consciousness. For its activity would tend to establish an expression of itself—the counterpart of its own being—in the object. Arrived at consciousness, its creations would be sustained there by the activity of the absolute, and not allowed to lapse.

An unconscious absolute cannot possess any features objectionable to unconscious beings. It may create them and destroy them without cessation—what is that to them? But to human beings, or to any other rational beings, such a blind fate is utterly hostile and repugnant in its every aspect. Their struggle for existence is a conscious one, and it strives toward a more complete consciousness and a larger sphere of directive will-power over the world in the interest of conscious, rational purposes. But an unconscious first principle is an absolute bar to the triumph of any such struggle. The greater the success of man’s struggle for self-consciousness and freedom, the more unstable would become his existence. It would result in his being further removed from harmony with the activity of the unconscious absolute substance, and that activity would be more directly hostile and subversive of man’s activity, the more the latter was realized. Hence, with a belief in an unconscious absolute, rational beings find themselves in the worst possible situation in this world. Pessimism is their inevitable creed. Any sort of culture, development, or education, of the so-called faculties of the mind, all deeds having for their object the elevation of the race into knowledge and goodness—whatever, in short, is calculated to produce and foster human individuality, must have only one net result—the increase of pain. For the destruction of conscious individuality is attended with pain; and the more developed and highly organized the individuality, the greater the pain attending upon its inevitable dissolution. Nor is the pain balanced by the pleasure of the exercise of the human activity, for the negation and consequent pain is twofold while the pleasure of creative activity is only single. The conscious struggle, being in direct opposition to the activity of blind fate, achieves its temporary victory of existence step by step, contending against an activity whose entire reaction against the conscious being is expressed as so much pain. Again, the ultimate victory of fate removes one by one every trace and result of human victory, and obliterates each conquest with an accompanying series of greater pangs.