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OF GOD AND HIS ATTRIBUTES.
Qui mare et terras variisque mundum
Unde nil majus generatur ipso,
Nec viget quicquam simile aut secundum.
Hor. Od. 12. Lib. I. V. 15.
Who guides below, and rules above,
The great Disposer and the mighty King:
Than he none greater, next him none,
That can be, is or was;
Supreme he singly fills the throne.
SIMONIDES, being armed by Dionysius the tyrant what God was, desired a day’s time to consider of it before he made his reply. When the day was expired, he desired two days; and afterwards, instead of returning his answer, demanded still double time to consider of it. This great poet and philosopher, the more he contemplated the nature of the Deity, found that he waded but the more out of his depth; and that he lost himself in the thought, instead of finding an end of it.
If we consider the idea which wise men, by the light of reason, have framed of the Divine Being, it amounts to this: that he has in him all the perfection of a spiritual nature; and since we have no notion of any kind of spiritual perfection but what we discover in our own souls, we join infinitude to each kind of these perfections, and what is a faculty, in a human soul, becomes an attribute in God. We exist in place and time, the Divine Being fills the immensity of space with his presence, and inhabits eternity. We are possessed of a little power and a little knowledge, the Divine Being is almighty and omniscient. In short, by adding infinity to any kind of perfection we enjoy, and by joining all these different kinds of perfections in one being, we form our idea of the great Sovereign of nature.
Though every one who thinks must have made this observation, I shall produce Mr. Locke’s authority to the same purpose, out of his essay on human understanding. “If, we examine the idea we have of the incomprehensible Supreme Being, we shall find, that we come by it the same way; and that the complex ideas we have both: of God and separate spirits, are made up of the simple ideas we receive from reflection: v. g. from having, by what we experience in ourselves, got the ideas of existence and duration, of knowledge and power, of pleasure and happiness, and of several other qualities and powers, which it is better to have, than to be without; when we would frame an idea the most suitable we can to the Supreme Being, we enlarge every one of these with our idea of infinity; and so, putting them togther, make our complex idea of God.”
It is not impossible that there may be many kinds of spiritual perfection, besides those which are lodged in an human soul; but it is impossible that we should have ideas of any kinds of perfection, except those of which we have some small rays and short imperfect strokes in ourselves. It would be therefore a very high presumption to determine whether the Supreme Being has not many more attributes than those which enter into our conceptions of him. This is certain, that if there be any kind of spiritual perfection which is not marked out in an human soul, it belongs, in its fulness, to the Divine Nature.
Several eminent philosophers have imagined that the soul, in her separate state, may have new faculties springing up in her, which she is not capable of exerting during her present union with the body; and whether these faculties may not correspond with other attributes in the Divine Nature, and open to us hereafter new matter of wonder and adoration, we are altogether ignorant. This, as I have said before, we ought to acquiesce in, that the Sovereign Being, the great author of nature, has in him all possible perfection, as well in kind as in degree; to speak according to our methods of conceiving. I shall only add under this head, that when we have raised our notion of this infinite Being as high as it is possible for the mind of man to go, it will fall infinitely short of what he really is. There is no end of his greatness; the most exalted creature he has made, is only capable of adoring it, none but himself can comprehend it.
The advice of the son of Sirach is very just and sublime in this light. “By his word all things consist. We may speak much, and yet come short: wherefore in sum, he is all. How shall we be able to magnify him? For he is great above all his works. The Lord is terrible and very great; and marvellous in his power. When you glorify the Lord, exalt him as much as you can; for even yet will he far exceed. And, when you exalt him, put fourth all your strength, and be not weary; for you can never go far enough. Who hath seen him, that he might tell us? and who can magnify him as he is? There are yet hid greater things than those be, for we have seen but a few of his works.”
I have here only considered the Supreme Being by the light of reason and philosophy. If we would see him in all the wonders of his mercy, we must have recourse to revelation, which represents him to us, not only as infinitely great and glorious, but as infinitely good and just in his dispensations towards men. But as this is a theory which falls under every one’s consideration, though indeed it can never be sufficiently considered, I shall here only take notice of that habitual worship and veneration which we ought to pay to this Almighty Being. We should often refresh our minds with the thought of him and annihilate ourselves before him in the contemplation of our own worthlessness, and of his transcendent excellency and perfection. This would imprint in our minds such a constant and uninterrupted awe and veneration as that which I am here recommending, and which is in reality a kind of incessant prayer, and reasonable humiliation of the soul before him who made it.
This would effectually kill in us all the little seeds of pride, vanity, and self-conceit, which are apt to shoot up in the minds of such whose thoughts turn more on those comparative advantages which they enjoy over some of their fellow-creatures, than on that infinite distance which is placed between them and the supreme model of all perfection. It would likewise quicken our desires and endeavours of uniting ourselves to him by all the acts of religion and virtue.
Such an habitual homage to the Supreme Being would, in a particular manner, banish from among us that prevailing impiety of using his name on the most trivial occasions.
I find the following passage in an excellent sermon, preached at the funeral of a gentleman, who was an honour to his country, and a more diligent as well as successful inquirer into the works of nature than any other our nation has ever produced. “He had the profoundest veneration for the great God of heaven and earth that I have ever observed in any person. The very name of God was never mentioned by him without a pause, and a visible stop in his discourse; in which, one that knew him most particularly above twenty years, has told me, that he was so exact, that he does not remember to have observed him once to fail in it.”
Every one knows the veneration which was paid by the Jews to a name so great, wonderful, and holy. They would not let it enter even in their religious discourses. What can we then think of those who make use of so tremendous a name in the ordinary expressions of their anger, mirth, and most impertinent passions? of those who admit it into the most familiar questions and assertions, ludicrous phrases, and works of humour? not to mention those who violate it by solemn perjuries. It would be an affront to reason to endeavour to set forth the horror and profaneness of such a practice. The very mention of it exposes it sufficiently to those in whom the light of nature, not to say religion, is not utterly extinguished.
—Deum namque ire per omnes
Terrasque, tractusque maris, calumque profundum.
Virg. Georg. 4. ver. 221.
For God:he whole created mass inipires;
Through heaven, and earth, and ocean’s depths he throws
His influence round, and kindles as he goes.
I WAS yesterday, about sun set, walking in the open field, till the night insensibly fell upon me. I at first amused myself with all the richness and variety of colours which appeared in the western part of the heaven: in proportion as they faded away and went out, several stars and planets appeared one after another, till the whole firmament was in a glow. The blueness of æther was exceedingly heightened and enlivened by the season of the year, and by the rays of all those luminaries that passed through it. The Galaxy appeared in its most beautiful white. To complete the scene, the full moon rose at length in that clouded majesty, which Milton takes notice of, and opened to the eye a new picture of nature, which was more finely shaded and disposed among softer light than that which the sun had before discovered to us.
As I was surveying the moon walking in her brightness, and taking her progress among the constellations, a thought rose in me, which I believe very often perplexes and disturbs men of serious and contemplative natures. David himself fell into it in that reflection: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” In the same manner, when I considered that infinite host of stars, or, to speak more philosophically, of suns, which were then shining upon me, with those innumerable sets of planets or worlds which were moving round their respective suns: when I still enlarged the idea, and supposed another heaven of suns and worlds rising still above this which we discovered, and these still enlightened by a superior firmament of luminaries, which are planted at so great a distance, that they may appear to the inhabitants of the former as the stars do to us: in short, while I pursued this thought, I could not but reflect on that little insignificant figure which I myself bore amidst the immensity of God’s works.
Were the sun, which enlightens this part of the creation, with all the host of the planetary worlds that move about him, utterly extinguished and annihilated, they would not be missed more than a grain of sand upon the sea-shore. The space they possess is so exceedingly little in comparison of the whole, that it would scarce make a blank in the creation. The chasm would be imperceptible to any eye that could take in the whole compass of nature, and pass from one end of the creation to the other; and it is possible there may be such a sense in ourselves hereafter, or in creatures which are at present more exalted than ourselves. We see many stars, by the help of glasses, which we cannot discover with our naked eyes: and the finer our telescopes are, the more, still, are our discoveries. Huygenius carries this thought so far, that he does not think it impossible there may be stars whose light has not yet travelled down to us since their first creation. There is no question but the universe has certain bounds set to it: but when we consider that it is the work of infinite power, prompted by infinite goodness, with an infinite space to exert itself in, how can our imagination set any bounds to it?
To return therefore to my first thought, I could not but look upon myself with secret horror, as a being that was not worth the smallest regard of one who had so great a work under his care and superintendency. I was afraid of being overlooked amidst the immensity of nature, and lost among that infinite variety of creatures, which, in all probability, swarms through all these immeasurable regions of matter.
In order to recover myself from this mortifying thought, I considered it took its rise from those narrow conceptions which we are apt to entertain of the divine nature. We ourselves cannot attend to many different objects at the same time. If we are careful to inspect some things, we must of course neglect others. This imperfection which we observe in ourselves is an imperfection that cleaves in some degree to creature of the highest capacities, as they are creatures, that is, beings of finite and limited natures. The presence of every created being is confined to a certain measure of space, and consequently his observation is stinted to a certain number of objects. The sphere in which we move, and act, and understand, is of a wider circumference to one creature than another, according as we rise one above another in the scale of existence. But the widest of these our spheres has its circumference. When therefore we reflect on the divine nature, we are so used and accustomed to this imperfection in ourselves, that we cannot forbear, in ascribing it to him in whom there no shadow of imperfection. Our reason indeed assures us, that his attributes are infinite; but the poorness of our conception is such that it cannot forbear setting bounds to every thing it contemplates, till our reason comes again to our succour, and throws down all those little prejudices which arise in us unawares, and are natural to the mind of man.
We shall therefore utterly extinguish this melancholy thought of our being overlooked by our Maker in the multiplicity of his works, and the infinity of those objects among which he seems to be incessantly employed, if we consider, in the first place, that he is omnipresent: and in the second, that he is omniscient.
If we consider him in his omnipresence, his being passes through, actuates and supports the whole frame of nature. His creation, and every part of it, is full of him. There is nothing he has made that is either so distant, so little, or so inconsiderable, which he does not essentially inhabit. His substance is within the substance of every being, whether material or immaterial, and as intimately present to it as that being is to itself. It would be an imperfection in him, were he able to remove out of one place into another, or to withdraw himself from any thing he has created, or from any part of that space which is diffused and spread abroad to infinity. In short, to speak of him in the language of the old philosopher, he is a Being whose centre is every where and his circumference no where.
In the second place, he is omniscient as well as omnipresent. His omniscience indeed necessarily and naturally flows from his omnipresence; he cannot but be conscious of every motion that arises in the whole material world, which he thus essentially pervades, and of every thought that is stirring in the intellectual world, to every part of which he is thus intimately united. Several moralists have considered the creation as the temple of God, which he has built with his own hands, and which is filled with his presence. Others have considered infinite space as the receptacle, or rather the habitation of the Almighty. But the noblest and most exalted way of considering this infinite space, is that of Sir Isaac Newton, who calls it the cenforium of the Godhead. Brutes and men have their cenforiola or little cenforiums by which they apprehend the presence, and perceive the actions of a few objects that lie contiguous to them. Their knowledge and observation turns within a very narrow circle. But as God Almighty cannot but perceive and know every thing in which he resides, infinite space gives room to infinite knowledge, and is as it were an organ to omniscience.
Were the soul separate from the body, and with one glance of thought should start beyond the bounds of the creation, should it for millions of years continue its progress through infinite space with the same activity, it would still find itself within the embrace of its creator, and encompassed round with the immensity of the Godhead. While we are in the body, he is not less present with us because he is concealed from us. “O that I knew where I might find him!” says Job. “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand, where he does work, but I cannot behold him; he hideth himself on the right hand that I cannot see him.” In short, reason, as well as revelation, assures us that he cannot be absent from us notwithstanding he is undiscovered by us.
In this consideration of God Almighty’s omnipresence and omniscience, every uncomfortable thought vanishes. He cannot but regard every thing that has being, especially such of his creatures who fear they are not regarded by him. He is privy to all their thoughts, and to that anxiety of heart in particular, which is apt to trouble them on this occasion: for as it is impossible he should overlook any of his creatures, so we may be confident that he regards, with an eye of mercy, those who endeavour to recommend themselves to his notice, and, in an unfeigned humility of heart, think themselves unworthy that he should be mindful of them.
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