The Relative and the Absolute

J. N. Darby.

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I have largely sought to shew elsewhere that knowledge is relative; that is, necessarily according to the form and measure of being which knows. I am so constituted as to conclude certain things; and they are true to me. I meet a closed door, and am such that I say, matter exists, and is extended, etc.; and two cannot be in the same place at once; and it is true for me. But a spiritual body could pass through a closed door. This, however, is not my manner of existence nor consequently of knowledge. I cannot know what is true for spiritual bodies, because it is not my mode of existence.

But when Mr. Mansel accepts Hegel's dictum that the Absolute must include all that is actual, even evil, I deny it. It is all a confusion of terms. What is relative or moral is confounded with essential attributes. I do not say with Augustine, that evil is a negation; but I do say it is failure or inconsistency with a relationship in which anything is, and supremely with God; and hence it cannot be connected with Absolute, because this is the opposite of failure in the relationship. In a creature there is nothing absolute, and the only right thing is dependence and obedience. If I cease either, I get out of relationship to the Absolute, and yet I cannot be the Absolute; I am only false to what ought to be my relationship to it. Absolute is the truth of everything: but in all but the Absolute, in the nature of things there is only dependence on it; and if not this, there is not truth (that is, there is the opposite of the Absolute, and this cannot be in the Absolute). Satan was a liar from the beginning and stood not in the truth, for there was no truth in him. Dependence in nature, in independence of will, is not in the truth; but that, in the nature of things, cannot be in the Absolute.

Mr. Mansel's pretended analogous syllogism is false in every way. A circular parallelogram is a contradiction in terms, and within the scope of human knowledge it cannot exist. The Absolute can exist. Hence there is no comparison. The contradiction in terms is in saying evil can be in the Absolute, because evil is falseness to relationship, and this is, by the very idea of the Absolute, a contradiction. The whole in Hegel and Mansel is a want of moral discernment. Power is in the Absolute, as is the truth of everything. Hence power (that is, independent power) out of the Absolute cannot exist - is a lie if it be set up. But a lie cannot exist in the Absolute, because all in it is in the truth of it, for it exists; and what is pretended to and is evil, because it exists only in the Absolute, does exist in truth in the Absolute, and therefore it is not evil.

27 There is another point. It is a mistake to suppose that I cannot be certain of the necessity of the existence of that of which I cannot conceive as existing. For my form of existence obliges me to recognise the existence of that which is out of the form of my existence, and which I consequently cannot conceive. If I have a relative existence, it is in relation to an absolute; for, in result, relation supposes this; but because it is relative, I cannot conceive it. Thus in a particular instance argued on elsewhere, I am so constituted as to see that there cannot be a thing existing stamped by design without a designer. In a word, I am so constituted that I believe in causes - hence in a first cause. I feel that for what is there must be a cause. But this is just what is false as to a first cause. I am so formed as to have the sense of cause and effect, because I exist as an effect. This is my relationship. Hence I have no idea of what an existence is which has no relationship to a cause, because, in my nature and necessary form of thought, I exist in such relationship; yet this very relationship forces me to see and own there is. Hence I have an idea of the Absolute, but not of how it subsists. But if I set up to be without the Absolute (that is, not in relation to a cause), or to be absolute, it is evil - false. But this evil is not therefore in the Absolute, because that existence in Him is truth, not false; the evil does not, cannot, exist in Him; for the Absolute is, in the nature of things, absolute truth. That is, each thing in Him is the truth - is what it is in its true nature, or is not the thing. All that Hegel and Mansel say is from the want of perceiving what Absolute and evil mean.

But I do think, in spite of all that has been said, that in Christ we have a revelation of the Absolute, not in itself (for a revelation seems to me to deny this in its nature, for it is not being, but the revelation of being); but still that which is is revealed. Hence He is the truth. But He is, and so manifests Him who is; He emptied Himself to do it; Phil. 2. Now reason has nothing to do with the truth, because it has only ideas in the mind; and they must exist in the mind. It can only conclude what must be, never what is. This is in its very nature the nature and value of reasoning, such as it is. But truth is the declaration of what is; it is not what is, nor is it a conclusion of what must be, which is only a result in my mind; but it is the declaration of what is.

28 Hence no theology is the truth. But Christ is the declaration of what is; He declares what God is. He that has seen Him has seen the Father. "I have manifested thy name." He is not as truth the Absolute in itself; but He is the Absolute in Himself. All the fulness of the Godhead dwelt in Him. Hence, as revealing it through a medium, as a concrete person down here, He is not the Absolute; but as the Absolute is in Him, and He makes Himself nothing (He is, as man, a mere servant), the Absolute is perfectly revealed. And so even as to man; because man being in Him an absolute and perfect servant, yet perfect in service, we have the truth of man. As to evil, it was revealed as to both its weakness and its power in man and Satan by its relationship to Him and God in Him: so this was the truth.

What is the Absolute? Self-existence, love, purity. I do not think there is more. If I have a feeling that is not love, I am acted on by something (that is, something is above me). I am not independent; but divine love is not moved by what is lovely (though God may delight in it when it is). And purity (figuratively light) means that there is nothing inconsistent with perfect existence - independence of all that could be or make inconsistency with love. If corruption were there, something has acted on self-being to make it what it was not when incorrupt. Light is not hidden by anything and shews what everything is, and hence is justly called by the image - name of light.

I do not call power the Absolute (though God be Almighty); for its action supposes will; that is, it is not what is in its nature. The Absolute can be preceded by nothing, but is itself: love is itself; light is itself. Power is wielded by - it is what the Self-being ('who is') has, not what He is. God, though all-wise, is not wisdom more than power, and for the same reason. I do not call righteousness or holiness the Absolute. They are the relation of power and nature to something else. Hence the written word, which is the truth, calls God "God," "love," "light"; not power, nor righteousness, nor holiness. Power and wisdom belong to Him: He is righteous and holy. But these are relative, particularly the two last - hence not what is, though they characterise.

29 But then man has no apprehension at all of love and light by reasoning; he may have in effect of power and righteousness by seeing the effects. God reveals Himself, and makes us partakers of the divine nature, by which we understand it. It is not as if we were it; for as men, we must be nothing (as Christ made Himself) to be in the truth and know God. For if we are something in ourselves, we deny the one Selfbeing and our relationship to Him. In the degree in which we are nothing by the revelation of God and the enjoyment of Him in the divine nature, so far we know the Absolute. But God has outwardly, that we may be nothing, revealed His love and acted in it when we were nothing - were independent in will without self-being, and hence haters of God. This was fully brought out in the cross where we had only sin, and thus it was pure and supreme love in God; and hence death of the old man that hates is brought in, by which it is nothing; and then the willing nothingness of the new man (we are servants) in which we enjoy the Absolute, God, and serve, which is love - the proof downwards that we are partakers of the divine nature. In the temptation in the wilderness the enemy sought to take the blessed One out of the place of God being all and Himself the servant.

Mysticism (and self-scrutiny as often preached) has a right principle; but from ignorance of there being no good in us, and that it is by positive action of love and light towards us that we are made nothing of, and that God in love and light is all, it goes all astray and sets up the self it would have done with. It is by the foolishness of the cross and of preaching - by divine love wholly outside us, and our salvation accomplished wholly outside us, and grace so manifested, our sins so purged by a work of God in Christ and dealing with Him - that self is made nothing of. We never know we are nothing, nor are glad to be it, till we know we are worse than nothing.

But no Hegelian or Fichtean spreading out of individuality into the race, or a kind of absolute of humanity, can do this; because after all self makes a part of the whole, though largely volatilised. It is not the denial of self, because I go to make up a part of the idea - that is, self does. But God is outside myself, and I as a Christian am absolutely delivered from it. Christianity seems to me in this divinely wise; and the more simply it is received, the more we have its wisdom, because self is thus done with and God glorified. On the other hand, it is true that we must be born of God. If I am not partaker of the divine nature, I cannot know Him. I am light, and I love in my new nature in the Lord and in the power of the Holy Ghost, or I could not know God who is such. It is not knowing myself, because I am no self-being, but a partaker of this nature; but being so, I am capable of knowing the Absolute morally, though not as a self-being. And thus I am in the truth, because this dependence is my true relationship. A holy loving nature delights in God being what we are not - in His being above us: if not, self would not be destroyed, we should be evil and not the Absolute.

30 "Cogito; ergo sum" (I think, so I exist) does not seem to me unambiguously true. If I say, I think or feel, and therefore there must be an "I" (that is, I must exist), it is true. But "I am" is something more; it means properly self-being. Now, I apprehend, self-being does not think, it knows. Thinking implies ignorance, imperfection, drawing conclusions (which is the opposite of knowing). "I am" is the necessary source of all - hence must know all. "I know" expresses the order in necessary precedence of things (perhaps this led to Plato's idea). "I think" is therefore not I am, but I exist.

I do not admit that, if I could judge of the attributes of God by my mind, I do not need a revelation; because acts may be needed for my reconciliation, both as to guilt and moral condition, and the exercise of grace which I may require to know to make them available. I may need, in order to the attribute being exercised, to know them from Himself. The only other supposition is that I so know what God is that I can conclude absolutely to what He will do, so as to be able to announce all He must do. But this would not reveal that it was done. It would be only a mental deduction. Nor would this be possible, because it supposes that I am as perfect as God, or I could not judge, as He, what to do. Besides, His doing may be in connection with some constitution of the Godhead which is not an attribute at all, but a fact known only by revelation. Note, as such, action of God must be in time for us, because we are in time. There is the question of its being done; and if God is love, He will shew it at some time and in some way suited to the object. If I am a sinner (and who will be mad enough to say that this world or his own heart is in its normal state? All know they are not), the whole thing is absurd, because it disables me from knowing intellectually, and the exercise of attributes must be of a special kind toward such, which a perfect man could not even conceive - he could not even understand the want. The sinner confessedly would be alike incapable of knowing; and his supposing himself an object of it would prove him unfit for it and insensible to it. In every point of view the supposition that a knowledge of attributes (if it existed) would preclude a revelation is wholly false. If God be love, the knowledge of this would make His own expression of it (that is, a revelation) a part of the display of that attribute, and a necessary one.

31 It is a great blunder to think that our knowledge of qualities is all that constitutes religion or even the basis of human affection. All this reasoning I deny. Besides, attributes are not known by man so as to form a religious basis. If they are, shew the example before Judaism or Christianity. The theology of Kant is as bad as the religion of the devil, or worse - it has not a divine affection in it.

For two and indeed three reasons, I do not think much of the argument from qualities in us to the attributes of God. For if I say I feel goodness is a good thing, and it must be infinite in God, it is really an innate consciousness of God, of which I suppose the seed is in every one; and I should not say much against it. God must be perfect: I feel this is good, and it must be infinitely in Him. But there is a combination of qualities - goodness, justice, holiness, power. In man, say goodness, justice. Now in finite and imperfect man I understand this, though they may be at the expense of each other. But when I make them infinite, they really exclude each other logically. I do not know how to combine them; and my infinite perfection of a quality in me becomes absurd. First, because we must look for combination; and this in infinitude I am incapable of. I doubt very much that there is any combination of qualities in God. Each act is right relatively to Himself and displays Himself; but we must speak of them so. Next, according to my powers what is infinite excludes all else. Thirdly, when a being is superior, the qualities of attributes are completely changed. I believe the cross has taught me the perfect reconciliation of these attributes in infinitude; and now I have the way, it confirms me in the conviction that they could not be in God Himself simply as such. "Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him."

32 The reasoning which speaks of the Absolute comprehending all is to me mere confusion, because it takes physical and moral infinitude as identical, as if being and qualities were the same. The Absolute, if I connect it with physical existence, becomes simple pantheism, because being or existence must be absolute. And all these things have a side of truth. But qualities are not beings. In particular, evil cannot be infinite, because it is relative and supposes something pre-existing as to which it is evil.

Further, all the reasoning as to forgiveness by God, simply because we can, is stupid confusion. I admire one that forgives, because he gives up self. And in this sense God may be said to forgive freely, though it is not quite exact. But when one forgives in the sense of wrong or disorder (not to self, but) either to others or to common moral order, there is a giving up not of self but of good. It is either indifference to evil, a giving up of all public moral order, or saying that there is no moral government nor ought to be. And so we judge in human things. A judge or a law that forgave all crimes would be nonsense; nor would men admire it at all even if selfishness were not concerned. Ought there not to be a moral government testifying to the difference of good and evil, right and wrong? The beauty of forgiving personal wrongs has nothing to do with it, proves nothing about it, is sophistical clap-trap. They have to prove, not that it is beautiful for man to forgive as giving up self, but that there ought to be no moral government, which is quite another question.

"Sustaining modes of being" is, I apprehend, very confused and loose language. Is it a mode or a being which is contained? What contains them? What is a mode of being? or can there be modes of being in the Absolute? I should deny it. Absolute is really an abstract conception, not a being at all. A being is itself, and cannot have or contain modes: if absolute, it has its own. When men speak of an absolute being, they do not think of a personal being. Supposing an absolute personal being to create, does the being cease to be absolute because a creature exists and is in relation to it? Yet it cannot have a creature mode of being, for it is absolute. Absolute (unless it is a mere abstraction, that is, nothing) supposes nothing before it on which it depends, but does not suppose nothing after it and dependent on it - does not hinder its being infinite, unless we confound ideal with physical infinitude. But its being absolute precludes its containing a mode of being which is not absolute. The Absolute supposes not only a possible but an actual existence out of all relation; but it toes not suppose that it ceases in se to be absolute because it becomes a cause. A cause cannot as such be absolute: the terms have no correlation. But a Being who is absolute does not cease to be so by being a cause, by willing. That is, there is no contradiction.

33 So when it is said, If infinite, it cannot become (that is, a cause), this is merely a loose employment of the word "become." It becomes nothing in se by being a cause; it remains absolutely the same. Something is produced outside itself by its will. If infinitude meant material extended, then indeed it would be impossible. It will be said that it acts, while before it was quiescent. It does not change, but displays itself. Display of self is not change, or self is not displayed. Had it been always displayed, it would be in a limited, not absolute, state. If creation were always, then it was not creation, or display had a necessary relation. Will was part of the Absolute. It displays will in creating and in not always creating. Had it always created, it would not have been a display of self in this respect. It was absolute and sufficient in itself: this was displayed by only creating when it pleased. By creating it displays that it was not necessarily quiescent (that is, dependent on something, not absolute).

Thus the difficulty (that is, if it be good to create and will was to be a cause, must it not have been always?) is only introducing time into the thought of the Infinite and Absolute. It is a confusion of thought; and this does prove that I cannot conceive how the absolute exists - though I know it does - because I exist not absolutely.

There is no necessary relation in causing: indeed the idea of causing denies it (though I am aware there are those who hold a law of order and no being, but this is not properly a cause). When there is an I a Being - who causes, there is no necessary relationship but the contrary; in the caused being there is. If it can be said, I am, I create, I destroy, there is absoluteness and no necessary relation. Aristotles, and Origens, and Fichtes may deny it, because they introduce time (that is, my mode of being, into God's) to get an idea of how. But if this confusion be avoided, and it is only confusion, creation and absoluteness are not contradictory. The idea of eternal matter is not really possible to us if we reflect; because we, being caused, are so constituted as to feel the need of a cause for existence, forcing us to infer that there must be a self-existent Being, but making it impossible to conceive that mode of existence. Pantheism reduces existence to matter, and so denies absoluteness and unchangeableness.

34 I admit creation is an object of faith, not of knowledge; I can only know it when created. But it is no coming out of God as emanation, and going back. What I am in relation to, God has formed according to the apprehensions of it He has created in me. There is no existence independent of Him, nor place where He is not sustainingly; but He does not exist in it. All these difficulties the simple words of scripture make as plain as possible: "God created"; but "by him all things consist." Their difficulties arose from making pure intellect God. Then you must have the intelligent and the intelligible (that is, ideal objects in the mind at least).