Origins of Utilitarianism's Radically Benevolent God

We must turn now to the question of the origins of this Radically Benevolent God. My main point in the discussion that follows is that the attribution of increasing benevolence to God was by no means the sole property of the utilitarian movement but rather that of a much wider field of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious and philosophical thinkers. What is crucial about the story of utilitarian thought, however, is that the utilitarian camp took the radical benevolence idea more seriously and more fully exploited its ethical and practical implications. But first, a brief sketch of the wider themes in western thought that over a period of about two centuries moved Divine benevolence up the hierarchy of godly attributes. A number of major intellectual shifts must be noted in this account.

Looking back to the seventeenth century, we find two key trends important to our story. The first is a growing store of difficulties facing English Protestantism, and the second is the ascendancy of Natural Philosophy — or what would soon become more commonly known as "science." The two trends were historically intertwined. Unlike the adversary relation that English religion and science would manifest by the mid-nineteenth century, in the seventeenth century, science was widely viewed as offering a new resource for shoring up the faith. As Leslie Stephen put it, "the divines of the seventeenth century believed sincerely that theology could be exhibited as a body of necessary truth, and, further, that all arguments in favour of theology must tell equally in favour of Christianity" (1902, vol. 1, p. 80). Science's role as religious rescuer had grown out of the particular character of the difficulties facing contemporary Protestantism. For one, there was the problem of the expanding world (and universe) of contemporary European knowledge. Stephen beautifully described the circumstance:

As distant countries, whose existence had scarcely touched men's thoughts in former ages, or which had been conceived as lying in some dim borderland rimming the bright circle of Christendom, came daily into closer contact with ordinary life, the true proportions of human history became manifest. Christendom was but a fragment of the world. Millions upon millions of human beings had never even heard of its existence; they knew nothing of the one true faith, which to know was life everlasting, and not to know was to incur everlasting torment. Could all the Chinese, for example, be damned because they knew nothing of an event which, so far as they were concerned, might have happened on the moon? If not damned, and if, in fact, they were about as happy and virtuous as Christians, could the Christian faith be necessary either in this world or the next? Throughout the eighteenth century, the deists are always taunting the orthodox with this startling fact of three hundred million Chinamen whose case cannot be squared with the old theories. The revelations of astronomy were even more impressive to the imagination. Once men could think of their little planet as itself the universe, consisting of a level plain a few miles in breadth, and roofed by the solid vault carrying our convenient lighting apparatus. The revelation, finally clenched by Newton's astonishing discovery, that the world was an atom in space, whirling round the sun, itself, perhaps, another atom, utterly crushed the old imaginations which still survive in Milton's poetry. The scenery had become too wide for the drama (Stephen, I, 81-82).

For another, English Protestantism had experienced a seemingly endless ramification of new and divisive sects. As Willey (p. 6) pointedly put it, religious differences had reduced points of faith to mere controversy. Surely the Reformation's originators had not expected that the placement of faith squarely on the biblical texts would lead to so many conflicting interpretations. But disputed exegesis had in due course become the dominating reality, and the more conflicts arose, the more thoughtful men and women came to realize the necessity of judging matters on the reasonableness of conflicting views. Hence, a new spirit of rationalism was often the silent inheritor of Protestant dissension — much as it had been when Protestantism first assembled its attack on the Roman Church. Quite naturally, Catholic observers might look on Protestantism's story of diversification and conflict with amusement, and also with wonder that so many small groups might declare themselves the one true faith. But in England, at least, such diversity was not always viewed as an evil. For one thing, it bred toleration — many English thinkers, "seeing that men unavoidably differ in profound speculation," as Stephen put it, "...learnt to admit the innocence of error" (1902, vol. 1, pp. 75-76). Also, while detractors might focus on the differences across Protestant sects, more hopeful souls might look instead at what remained constant and necessary across all of them. In this way the very diversity of Christian belief set in motion more or less empirical quests for its essential and common denominators. By now, too, generations of Protestants had learned that the Bible was not altogether complete in its capacity to provide moral guidance on questions of everyday life or political choice. The Bible, after all, was made up of histories, of stories, of a mass of particulars and not of the general principles that the new era had grown accustomed to equating with knowledge in the highest sense.

In several important ways, then, Natural Philosophy or science spoke to the most vexing difficulties of Protestant faith. Science was universal, and could be expected to speak as truly to the English as to the Chinese. Science was also general, and might provide a unified body of principles for the governance of the moral as well as the physical world. Science also meant rationality, and seemed inherently antiauthoritarian in its perspective. And if these advantages were not enough, was not it true that the most stunning achievement in Natural Philosophy so far had been made by an Englishman, Newton (1642-1727)? Thus did Natural philosophy in the late 17th and over the whole of the 18th century come to be regarded as "God's Other Book," the study of which was suitable, along with the Bible, for providing the hearts and minds of faith-seeking men with a clear vision of His character and will. It was to be sure a rosy vision of the relationship between religion and science, one undoubtedly made possible (as Willey suggested) by the

...fact that the findings of science, up to date, could fuse harmoniously with the presuppositions inherited from Christianity, which, though shaken by controversy, still remained as almost unquestioned certainties in men's hearts. For what had science revealed? Everywhere design, order, and law, where hitherto there had been chaos. (Willey, 1961, p. 5)

But if science held out a helping hand to the faith, it also brought with it a number of important conceptual demands. Most important of these, I believe, was the need for a crucial shift in the meaning and definition of "Nature." Nature, as Willey has described, became "deified" by 18th century thinkers. For if God was now to be made visible through His Creation, then the Creation — i.e., Nature — would of necessity have to become Godlike. This simple parallelism, seemingly as innocent and obvious as blue sky, would require an enormous shift in habits of Christian thought.

One of the chief attempts to use Natural Philosophy for specifically theological ends appeared in the form of Natural Theology or Natural Religion. The two names defined a field of knowledge in contradistinction to Revealed or Scriptural Religion, lately so variously interpreted. Natural Theology attempted to borrow from the prestige and rationalism of science in search of a Christian God. It was constructed upon the premise that a naturalistic and rationalistic approach to Christian faith might lead to both proofs of God's existence and to a Christian image of His divine characteristics. It was an optimistic attempt, to be sure, constructed for the most part upon the picture of "order, law, and rationality" that Newton and his scientific legatees had provided. If nothing else, Natural Theology and Natural Religion provided contemporary-sounding arguments for longstanding Christian commitments — often drawing upon recent scientific discoveries illustrating the intricacy of contrivance evidenced in the natural world.

But the argument contained an inevitable circularity. If natural theologians sought for evidence of God in Nature, it was a specific God, namely a Christian God, they sought. Thus only observations leading to affirm this prior imagery helped the cause. Natural Theology could not rigorously demonstrate God's existence or His characteristics, and few Natural Theologians expected it to. Instead, it simply attempted "...to reconcile both the findings of science and the dictates of reason with the already preexisting emotional and spiritual commitment which practicing Christians felt toward God" (LeMahieu, p. 53; see also p. 89). It asked, in other words, not if Nature revealed God but merely if a Christian God were compatible with Nature.

Nature's pleasing scenes might fit nicely into the natural theological system but its more unpleasant ones posed a new dilemma. Where, after all, might one fit pain, evil, death in such a new, benevolence-emphasizing perspective? Inevitably, every contemporary natural theologian faced the problem of evil and tried to explain it away. Evil, for example, might be recast as merely an illusion created by human misunderstanding, or it might be suggested that a greater good was served by ostensible evil, and so on. This was a rhetorical line and preoccupation that led straight to explicit, if not always convincing, cases on behalf of God's benevolence. The more firmly natural theology was embraced, therefore, the more thoroughly God's benevolence required articulation and ontological priority. This, then, defined the crucial link between natural theology and the utilitarianism of Paley and other theological utilitarians.

A fine example of the lengths to which natural theological defenses of God's benevolence would go is provided in the famous "Bridgewater Treatises" (1833-1836). The Reverend Francis Henry, Earl of Bridgewater, left an 8,000 pound legacy for the support of a series of books "on the power, wisdom and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation." William Buckland, geologist and later dean of Westminster, was invited to contribute one of the nine planned treatises. Buckland's essay addressed the problem posed by the presence of carnivores in nature. How, he asked, did the creation of carnivora square with a just and merciful Creator? Buckland, writes Gould,

resolved the issue to his satisfaction by arguing that carnivores actually increase 'the aggregate of animal enjoyments' and 'diminish that of pain.' Death, after all, is swift and relatively painless, victims are spared the ravages of decrepitude and senility, and populations do not outrun their food supply to the greater sorrow of all.

Buckland continued:

The appointment of death by the agency of carnivora, as the ordinary termination of animal existence, appears therefore in its main results to be a dispensation of benevolence; it deducts much from the aggregate amount of the pain of universal death; it abridges, and almost annihilates, throughout the brute creation, the misery of disease, and accidental injuries, and lingering decay; and imposes such salutary restraint upon excessive increase of numbers, that the supply of food maintains perpetually a due ratio to the demand. The result is, that the surface of the land and depths of the waters are ever crowded with myriads of animated beings, the pleasures of whose life are coextensive with its duration; and which throughout the little day of existence that is allotted to them, fulfill with joy the functions for which they were created. [My account, including the two quotations, is borrowed from Gould, pp 32-33.]

No less than the grand Newtonian vision of a clockwork universe provided the abiding scientific metaphor at Natural Theology's conceptual base. In an argument familiar even to this day, the existence of a clock implied the existence of a clockmaker — and so design in nature's universe implied the Great Designer. And once again, the metaphor seemed to leave little place for evil in the world. Newton's clockwork God became coextensive with a law-governed natural world whose chief attributes were order, law, and rationality. Where fit evil in such a perspective? Here was further evidence of God's benevolence.

Within the halls of doctrinal theology itself, the emergent commitment to God's radical benevolence faced its most serious obstacle in the longstanding Christian belief in eternal damnation. As D.P. Walker has shown, one of the most intriguing debates of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries concerned the eternality of God's punishments for the damned. Here, too, one can see strong forces tugging at an earlier, less benevolent deity on behalf of radical benevolence. The cultural circumstances and arguments in favor of benevolence are instructive. First of all, the Reformation had been prompted in part by reactions against the selling of indulgences by the Roman Church. In doing away with indulgences Protestantism also did away with their site, Catholic purgatory. And with purgatory gone, Protestant faithful were faced with a much starker prospect in the afterlife: either everlasting heaven or everlasting torment in hell. Many Protestants worried over the fates of their loved ones. Protestantism had also emphasized Divine predestination, and so the fates of the damned seemed to reflect ill on the Creator. How, after all, could a just God have created human souls knowing full well, and before they were born, that they would be damned? Ironically, the more Protestant sects saw themselves as unique and favored elects, the more it seemed that the overwhelming preponderance of human beings would be sent to hell. The imbalance was exacerbated by the souls of unbaptized babies, who were likewise denied heaven. In an age of high infant mortality, it had been estimated that as many as half hell's population were babies.

Other arguments also tell something of the climate of sentiment. It had been observed that, prior to the day of the Last Judgment, the threat of hell's torments might act to deter people from sin. But after the Judgment, what purpose could continued punishment serve? The notion of a Godly contrivance with no purpose ran directly against contemporary patterns of thought. There is scriptural authority for the idea that one of the blessings of heavenly residence was that of peering down upon the torments of the damned. But the relish of vengeance, too, seemed out of step with the sensibilities of the times. The third Lord Shaftesbury argued early in the eighteenth century that real goodness could not be the result either of desire for heavenly reward or aversion to hell's torments. Real goodness, Shaftesbury argued, had to be for its own sake. It is important to note that scriptural authority for eternal damnation — according to D.P. Walker — is very strong, "as strong as on any point of Christian faith" (p. 19). The case for mitigation ran against a clear scriptural tide and in doing so indicated how strong was the pressure on its behalf. Many of the principals of the theological-utilitarian camp — notably, Priestley, Hartley, and Paley — would at one time or another participate in the controversy over eternal damnation.


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Last modified 14 June 2007