Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Anthropomorphism

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ANTHROPOMORPHISM is a term used in theological writings to denote the figure by which words expressing human organs and activities are applied to the divine Being ; in short, it is the conception and representation of God as possessed of corporeal and human properties. Originally and literally the word implied only the ascrib ing to God a physical form resembling the human body, and consequently included under it all forms of expression which attribute to Him the exercise of physical organs and senses. But its meaning was soon extended so as to comprehend all representations of God which require Him either to be in himself corporeally extended, or to possess a corporeal body as the necessary condition of His activity. In this wider sense all theories were designated anthro pomorphic, which identified God with light or the physical universe, or which placed alongside of Him a primeval, uncreated matter.

Primitive ideas of God are necessarily framed by man from the analogy of his own nature. He is, however, able to represent God to himself under the analogy of his mental or spiritual, as well as under that of his material nature. This more refined form was called anthropo- pathism, and is that mode of contemplating the divine attributes founded on the analogy of God to the human spirit All forms of expression which ascribe to God passions, intelligence, or volition, rest ultimately upon this supposed analogy. In modern theology and philosophy, it is this mode of thought that usually receives the name of anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is inseparable from early religion. The first dim intuition of God as the ruler of the universe, on whom we depend, cannot at an early time be seized in all its purity by reason. Sense and imagination are developed before reason, and in semi-barbarous intelli gences completely overbalance it. The object of their faith is not God himself, but God as manifested in nature and history. It is only through ideas derived from sensible objects and elevated by the imagination that man can clothe his primitive thought of God with attributes that enable him to realise it, to bring it home to himself. He must represent God as in all respects like himself, superior only in power. The very words by which alone he can give expression to the first workings of his consciousness of God carry with them a sensible meaning, and hence react powerfully on the development of his belief. They imperceptibly fix attention upon the physical facts involved in them, and their merely symbolic use is forgotten. Hence arise myths. Even among peoples in whom the growth of the religious consciousness was extraordinarily favoured, strong traces of anthropomorphism are to be found. In the Hebrew literature there is a prevailing anthropomorphic idea of God. He is represented as seeing, hearing, smelling; as having a visible, corporeal presence; as hating, loving, and repenting. Although the pure idea of God as a spirit, as the very essence of being, is distinctly recognised and insisted upon by the prophets and lawgivers, the people demanded a visible symbol, a sensible emblem of their faith. Great part of the cere monial law is taken up with the attempt to reconcile this desire for visible symbol with the purer requirements of their faith. Christian thought freed itself completely from the yoke of this crude anthropomorphism by its fundamental axiom that God is a spirit. Theology since then has had to steer its course with care between two opposite tendencies : one striving to attain to a living per sonal community with God through Christ, and thereby running the risk of introducing foreign elements into the idea of God; the other, from undue fear of anthropo morphism, tending to reduce the idea of God to a blank negation, a substance without qualities. In the history of the church these tendencies appeared at a very early period. In the Clementine homilies, but particularly in Tertullian (see Adv. Praxean, c. vii. ; De Came Christi, c. xi.) there is distinct anthropomorphism. Tertullian declares that nothing can have real being that is not extended, corporeal; God, therefore, he seems to identify with an ethereal being of light. An example of the finer form in which human affections are ascribed to God may be found in Lactantius (De Ira Dei, c. ii.) The Alex andrian theologians, from their philosophical training, were specially opposed to anthropomorphism, but in their hands the danger of the opposite tendency is seen. According to some of them, we know God only by negation, we know what He is not, not what He is. Others (e.g., Irenseus, Novatian) declare that all the predicates of God are only in image; and that, from the finitude of our minds, we must use terms expressing not God s nature, but our own ignorance. Phrases in Scripture which seemed to be anthropomorphic were explained by the Fathers as revela tions of God in such a way as to be intelligible to us. This revelation was called (see Chrysostom, Horn. iii. c. 3) con descension or divine economy.

The church itself was not free from anthropomorphism of the crudest type. In the 2d century Melito, bishop of Sardis, wrote a book concerning the corporeity of God, and in the 4th century Audams, in Mesopotamia, held fcimilar views, and tad many followers. In tlie Middle Ages the question gradually merged into tlie more philo sophical one of the relation between reason and faith. In modern theology the problem again appears, but its aspect is completely philosophical. Philosophy, indeed, has never ceased to concern itself with this very question. Xeno- phanes mocked the anthropomorphism of his countrymen; Aristotle denied to the gods ethical virtue and the posses sion of emotions or passions; he allowed to them only a life of intellectual speculation. The Epicureans thought the gods lived in complete quiescence, and concerned themselves not at all with the affairs of men (see Lucretius, ii. 646). Philo exhibits very strongly the tendency to reduce the Deity to a lifeless abstraction, whose attributes are only negatively known. In modern philosophy, Descartes attempted to settle the problem, by affirming that any attributes in us which involve limitation or imperfection cannot be ascribed to God, but that attributes which do not imply imperfection can be predicated of Him. Spinoza is one of the strongest opponents of any form of anthro pomorphism, and from him the modern aspect of the question may be said to proceed. He brought clearly to light the fundamental difficulty, the reconciliation of the infinite and absolute nature of God with any attribute whatsoever; for attribute, as such, implies negation, i.e., limitation. Spinoza dismisses as anthropomorphic the idea of God as an intelligence, as free to act, and as ruling the world, and thus destroys the ideas of design in nature and of providence. The consequences of this theory on questions relating to the personality of God, miracles, prayer, &c., have been worked out very fully in the most

recent times.

Thus the real problem at the root of the question as to the legitimacy of anthropomorphic modes of thought, is the philosophical one of the limits of human intelligence, of the relation between the divine thought in itself and in nature and human intelligence. A long line of philosophic thinkers affirm the impossibility of human intelligence penetrating the nature of the divine, and point out our inability to solve the many contradictions which arise in the attempt to do so. According to them, we can only think of God by analogy; our ideas of Him must be anthro pomorphic, but they are at the same time known to be entirely symbolical. The best known representatives of this mode of thought are Bishop Browne and the late Dean Mansel.