Thinking About Religion
Volume 9 (2011)

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The Nonrational Given:
Edgar S. Brightman on the Dark in the Divine

Jim McLachlan
Western Carolina University


The mistake that we often make in classroom discussion of the problem of evil is to begin with literary examples like Dostoevsky and then move directly to theoretical defenses of theism. The fact is that Ivan and Alvin aren’t talking about the same thing.  Ivan Karamazov says he accepts the existence of God, even accepts the logical proof of his goodness, but still wishes to return his ticket.  Camus claimed such metaphysical rebels demand  “. . . involves this superior being in the same humiliating adventure as mankind’s, its ineffectual power being the equivalent of our ineffectual condition.” Likewise William James insisted that God be “no gentleman.”  Of the set of controversial proposals that make up Brightman’s idea of God none is more unacceptable to traditional theists than “the given.” Brightman’s god is “no gentleman but "a spirit in difficulty" who like us must deal with suffering and the absurd.

Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago--centuries, ages, eons, ago!--for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities.  Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction!  Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane--like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell--mouths mercy and invented hell--mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!. . . .(Twain 1974, 743-744).

The closing lines of Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger indicate Twain’s rebellion against his Calvinist upbringing and its omnipotent creator of heaven and earth.  This sentiment is common in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century literature.  Among the most well known discussions of the problem of evil in Introduction to Philosophy classes is Ivan’s decision to return in his admission ticket to God in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, in Rieux’s objections to Paneloux’s sermon on suffering in The Plague.  The mistake that we often make in introductory courses is to cite these literary examples and then move to J.L. Mackie or H. J. McClousky on the logical problem of evil and from there to Alvin Plantinga, William Hasker, and Peter Van Inwagen’s defenses of traditional theism.  The fact is that Ivan and Alvin aren’t talking about the same thing.  Ivan Karamazov says he accepts the existence of God, even accepts the logical proof of his goodness, but still wishes to return his ticket.  Rieux only contends that in practice no one can believe in an omnipotent God, he says if he believed in such a God “. . he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him.”  (Camus, 1991, 116-118). Camus claimed these metaphysical rebels implicate “this superior being in the same humiliating adventure as mankind’s, its ineffectual power being the equivalent of our ineffectual condition.” (Camus 1984, 100-103).

Camus’ description of the rebel’s relationship with God echoes William James’ insistence that God “be no gentleman,” that “. . . His menial services are needed in the dust of our human trials, even more than his dignity is needed in the empyrean”(James 1981, 35). It may be that creaturely suffering is but the dark speck, the contrast that makes for the greater beauty of the whole, but to forsake the suffering of individuals for the beauty of the whole is a betrayal those who must sit in that dark part of the picture.

The Non Rational Given

Of the set of controversial proposals that make up his idea of God none is more unacceptable to traditional theists than “the given.” God "is a spirit in difficulty," this is the theme of The Problem of God and Brightman’s distinctive way of thinking of God(1930, 126).  The notion that God is “a spirit in difficulty” is important,since it emphasizes that there is within God that which is beyond the rational out of which God endeavors to create meaning. It brings not only God into history but history into God.  God is attempting to bring order from chaos as in the early creation stories but this is not a dualism in which God is opposed by chaos outside of the Divine life.  The chaos is within God. Brightman writes that "Thus our finite God is not one of a finished perfection; his perfection and the perfection of his world consist in their perfectibility."  God is never ignorant of evil for the possibility of evil and good are within God in the formlessness of the non-rational given, the dark nature of God.(1930, 130).

For Brightman the understanding of evil is related to a non-traditional understanding of nothingness which is not understood as privation, but no-thingness as indeterminacy, as a chaos at the heart of God’s being.  The non-rational given is the primal indeterminacy of the will that is at the basis of both God and Being. The radical move here is that both God and Being are developmening, thus there is a temporal aspect to both God and Being. Thus Brightman’s God is more thoroughly like us creatures than most philosophical and theological versions of the divine.  God is primarily a moral being struggling to bring order and meaning from chaos and meaninglessness.   God deals with the same difficulties that are met by the creatures. Brightman includes non rational given within God, so God struggle bringing the chaos within God into order. Brightman thinks that God is a being “whose perfection lies in his perfectibility.”

God’s Problems

The title of this book THE PROBLEM OF GOD, is intended to convey a triple meaning; that God is a problem to us, that we are a problem to him, and (strange as it may sound) that God is a problem to himself.  Such a book is written for those who have problems and who sympathize with the problems of others.(1930, 9)

This last sentence says that The Problem of God is a “book is written for those who have problems and sympathize with the problems of others.”  The implication is that we need to stop looking at God as the blissful ideal above all struggle and see God in William James’ terms as involved in struggle. It even asks us to empathize with God as a fellow being in the difficult struggle. With such a view it is not surprising that Brightman next says his book has grown out of the conviction that the idea of God needs revision.  "The eternity of God has been confused with a special idea about God.(Brightman 1930, 10) Brightman thinks that the most important idea that he introduced in The Problem of God was the idea of the “non rational given.”

Frankly I believe in a God who has more to do than he has yet done, and so is capable of growth; and in a God who is not the voluntary cause of all human misery, although he is supreme in the sense of being able to bring meaning and value out of all possible misery.(1930, 11) 

Like Camus, Brightman thought that a good deal of 19th and 20th century atheism represented a rebellion against old ideas of God.  He thought that if we changed our ideas of God we changed ourselves thus the substitutes for God carried with them quite serious repercussions. The idea of God is so fundamental that we cannot change it without changing ourselves.(1930, 15)  Following the German idealists, particularly Hegel and the early Feuerbach.  Brightman thought that our idea of God evolves as the projection of our highest values.  There are moments when human notions of God enter blind alleys.  We think of God as a master and humans as slave, we make God so powerful that God morality is nothing like out own.  In A Philosophy of Religion Brightman briefly summarizes what he thinks are the two major types of theism

I. Theistic Absolutism:                         The view that the will of God faces no condition within the divine experience which that will did not create (or at least approve).

II. Theistic Finitism:                             The view that the will of God does face conditions within divine experience which that will neither created nor approves (1940, 282).

Absolutism includes both pantheism and traditional theism.  In both there is no condition that the will of God or the being of God did not create.  Against both pantheism and traditional theism Brightman argues that as our notion of God seems to increase in physical power so God seems to diminish in spiritual worth(1930, 64). The omnipotence of God has expanded God from a personal being to an impersonal one.(1930, 86).  But if we take this expansive view of God and claim that God includes everything this will have to include the false as well as the true, the evil as well as the good.  In short, the word God comes dangerously close to having no meaning at all.  If the idea of God becomes so infinitely broad it also becomes infinitely vague.   Some expansions of our ideas can become foolish and self defeating when they lead to contradiction or to vagueness.(1930, 89)  When the idea of God was enlarged from the protector of the Hebrews to the Father of all mankind the change was a moral and metaphysical improvement because of its greater consistency with the facts and it was more intelligible than the first.  But if we expand it too much it no longer makes any sense.(1930, 90) Consider Mathews Arnold's statement that God is "the power not ourselves that makes for righteousness” (1930, 44)  Even though the word power is intended as a step forward beyond personality it really only leads to a fog.  Righteousness can only be associated with persons. 

Brightman’s discussion of the expansion of the idea of God is strongly reminiscent of of one of the key sources of his thought German Idealism.  In this case Ludwig Feuerbach’s similar discussion in The Essence of Christianity, the further one moves from the concrete moral image of God(s), the further one moves into vagueness and the closer to eliminating God altogetherThough he doesn’t see the idea of God as the mere projection of human desire and ideals, like Feuerbach, Brightman sees the history of religion as the expansion of the idea of God from tribal and national pantheons of deities to one God.  And, like Feuebach, he wonders whether this expansion has contracted God’s relation to the conflicts of real life?  We must either limit God's relations with the actual world or limit the blissful unity of God’s nature.  For Feuerbach the movement into vagueness culminates in the loss of God, or rather seeing the true God in humanity.[1]  Brightman’s discussion seems to accept Feuerbach’s general point that a healthy notion of God is personal, an unhealthy God, one that is about to be discarded is one that doesn’t relate to our moral lives.  This would be a God that has become so omnipotent, so perfectly eternal that we cannot even think of such a being, such a being would have no bearing on our moral lives. This is what he thought wrong with Arnold’s characterization of God.  It was so vague it became meaningless. Brightman seeks to create a healthy personal God rather than locate God as merely the ideal in the human.  Brightman begins his argument for the finite/infinite deity involved in the life of the world.

At least we need to form a modified conception of his inner bliss in the light of the tragic limits unity in the world of human struggle.  Since we cannot surrender the facts of experience and retain the basis for any belief in anything, it turns out that a revised conception of the unity of God is necessary(1930, 92).

The insistence on the blissful unity of God removes God further and further from life and the idea of God from usefulness in the world.  The idea becomes mere edification but has no value beyond emotional excitement. 

The life of God and the Divine Knowledge may therefore perhaps be expressed as a play of Love with itself; but this idea sinks to the level of mere edification or even of inanity if there be absent from it the seriousness, the pain, the patience, and work of the Negative(Brightman 1930, 94). 

Platonic ideals do not struggle, only persons are involved in struggle.  If there is a God at all She (or He) must be a unitary person, but within the life of any person there is both struggle and opposition.  Every person is a unitary experience of diverse and opposing elements.  The more excellent the person is the greater the inner diversity and the richer the unity that is attained, but the expansion of God into the all-inclusive contracts God's goodness as the origin of everything that is traceable to God.  It rejects the moral aspect of God's nature because evil is no longer differentiated from God.  God expands beyond good and evil and destroys the possibility at looking at God as good. 

Brightman complains that Royce’s idea of God includes the sins of man but expands beyond sin by bringing good out of evil.  Brightman thinks that this leaves a hopeless contradiction in our hands.  If I rebel and count my sin as truly evil God transforms it into good.  This removes the positive character of the act.  Brightman does not doubt that God brings good out of evil but if we suppose that God is the all inclusive one, then my sin in its awful wickedness is also truly a part of God just as is his victory over it.   All things, even the heinous, are finally part of the great final harmony. The different actions and beings cease to have a meaning of their own.  Evil ceases to be evil and once again is made into the greater harmony.  Brightman rejects any kind of notion that all evil is only prima facie.  There are real surd evils that cannot be made a part of the an aesthetic perfection.  What is important here is that Brightman is arguing for the irreducible character of the negative. This is the source of freedom.  The problem, according to Brightman, is that if we see God in eternity eternally overcoming our sins then there is and was nothing we can or could ever do to upset the Divine bliss then our actions may be completely unimportant.   Brightman objects to an aesthetic harmony view where the problem of evil is resolved in a timeless eternity.   Holocausts, birth defects, torture, and betrayals are all part of the blissfulness of God’s nature.   This is also an objection to all absolutism whether theism or pantheism. To Brightman this means good really also ceases to have any real import.  True evil cannot be part of an absolutely good being so evil once again becomes an illusion. In fact the non-dualist pantheistic absolutist like Sankara who sees the impersonal Nirguna Brahman as Sat, Cit, Ananda (Being, Consciousness, Bliss)  may be on firmer ground for it is a morally less disturbing impersonal being that would be blissful in the face of “illusory” evil rather than the theistic absolutist.  For the theist the personal God is not affected in His being by the suffering of trillions of creatures. As Anslem argued God cannot be compassionate in God’s own being for that would make God passive, but only we experience God’s love as compassionate.

Although it is better for thee to be. . . compassionate, passionless, than not to be these things; how art thou. . . compassionate, and, at the same time, passionless?  For, if thou art passionless, thou dost not feel sympathy; and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched; but this is to be compassionate.. . . How, then, art thou compassionate in terms of our experience, and not compassionate in terms of thy being.

Truly, thou art so in terms of our experience but thou art not in terms of thine own. (Anselm 1908, 11-14)

In Anselm’s eagerness to preserve God’s immutability above and beyond the world Anselm has taken from us any way of really seeing God as compassionate in Him/Herself.  To be compassionate is to be moved by another but this would imply that God changes.  But God cannot change, for this would involve God in the world.  Where is the difference between a non-dualist experiencing the bounty of being and a theist experiencing the “compassion” of God?It is not sufficient to explain the existence of suffering in the world as a part of the greater blissful beauty of the mind of God because, as Camus and Ivan Karamazov complained, we are in the picture, we can’t get out.  But, more importantly, even if we could, to run to God’s side is to abandon all those others who are in it with us.  Most theists allow that there are some limitations on the power of God.  Already Aquinas allows for logical limitation in that God cannot do anything logically impossible, free will theists claim that God is limited by human freedom though this is a self limitation, and God is limited morally in that God cannot lie or murder, such attributes are inconsistent with God’s character. (Though Twain would claim if we could see through the theoretical curtain God has done a good deal of both).  But Brightman thinks that God is limited by another factor that he calls surd evil or the dysteleological surd, that certain events lead to no greater, they cannot be made instruments of a higher unity. God works to overcome tragedy in the universe but there is still tragedy.  All the other types of evil may be superceded by some sort of development (incoherence, ignorance, maladjustment, incompetence, etc). But a dysteleological surd is inherently and irreducibly chaotic.  It contains within itself no principle of development or improvement.  For example, imbecility and some debilitating infant diseases may produce some value for others but on the whole for the persons affected by these diseases life is a burden.  Moral beings attempt to create meaning in such situations.  Brightman has argued that God’s perfection lies in God’s perfectibility, but this is an infinite task and one that doesn’t eliminate all tragedy.

If there be any truly surd evil, then it is not in any sense an intrinsic good; good comes in opposing it, not in enjoying it.  A good man or a good God, in the presence of surd evil, could only exercise control:  self-control, in order not to be overwhelmed by the evil, and objective control, in order that the evil may not overwhelm all values.  The problem of evil in its most acute form is the question whether there is surd evil and, if so, what its relation to value is. (1940, 244)

Surd evil cannot be proven apriori, but we seem to encounter almost daily.  Absolutist theism denies there are any surd evils.  Ivan Karamazov wants to turn in his admission tickets to a world that seems to be over run with them.  Brightman sympathizes with Ivan’s position but wants to believe in a just and benevolent God.


Brightman thought evolution shows two things. One is a tremendous amount of waste and perishing but the other also seems to be purpose.  So though there is evidence of design in nature there is also evidence of the frustration of purpose.   There are, says Brightman, three possible explanations: traditional theism which claims that the opposition is a product of the creative will of God; dualism which sees the opposition as external to God; and, finally personalism that these factors are within God.  They are internal factors that are not products of God’s will and choice.  Brightman opts for the third position:

God does not deliberately choose the cruelties of evolution and the suffering of creation; they represent, rather, the necessary outcome of his own eternal Given nature, out of which he is always bringing a higher good. (1930, 131)

Thus there is something beyond reason in the reasonable God.  The German mystic Jacob Boehme speaks of the bitter torment in God.  "This dark aspect of religion points to a tragic reality in God"(1930, 137). The possibility of evil is within God.  God’s moral goodness, God’s perfection consists in God’s choice for the good; this is not metaphysically guaranteed, it is a personal act of love and will.

 What makes Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor so powerful is that the Grand Inquisitor attacks Christ on the point that traditional theism has made so important, God’s difference from us.  The Inquisitor claims that Christ as God possesses a freedom and power of will qualitatively different than humans so he turns down the temptations of bread, power, and security, all actions that, the Grand Inquisitor believes, no human is capable of doing.  It is God’s “holy will” that Ivan Karamazov attacks in the story.  The Inquisitor asks Christ how can a God, for whom temptation is hardly real because he is so strong, demand the free response from humans who are not powerful enough to resist the temptations of bread, security, and power.  If one is naturally good and has no understanding, beyond an abstract one, of alienation, fear, and the temptation to despair can we say that He/She really understands the other person and can demand moral goodness of them. Eighty years later Albert Camus returns to the same story asserting that Dostoevsky’s religious solution given by Zosima is a betrayal of solidarity with humanity.  We must remain with the suffering creatures in the dark part of God’s beautiful painting and not hope for some eschatological fulfillment.  Brightman would agree with Camus and Ivan that to fly to a supernatural being that does not understand the human difficulty of temptation to egoism is to betray the human condition but he disagrees that we only confront the binary opposition of traditional theism and atheism.  Brightman’s point is that if God is to be good in any really human sense of the term, and there is no other that we can understand, God has to have experienced temptation and overcome it.  Goodness is a matter of will and not being. In a “perfect” being that is untroubled by bodily impulses the moral struggle vanishes and with it, all real goodness.  All this implies risk but one has confidence in God because God constantly strives for the good not because God is above the fray.

Works Cited

Anselm of Canterbury. 1908.  Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Gaunillon; and Cur Deus Homo.  Translated by S.N. Dean.  LaSalle, Ill: Open Court

Brightman, Edgar S.  1930.  The Problem of God.  New York: The Abbington Press.

          .  1940.  A Philosophy of Religion. New York: Prentice Hall. 

          .  1963.  Moral Laws, New York:  Kraus.

Camus, Albert.  The Plague. New York: Random House.

          .  1984.  The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt.  New York: Random House.

Feuerbach, Ludwig.  1957.  The Essence of Christianity.  Translated by George Eliot.  New York:  Harper and Row.

James, William.  1981.  Pragmatism.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Twain, Mark.  1974.   The Mysterious Stranger in The Portable Mark Twain.  New York: Viking


     [1]Consider this passage from The Essence of Christianity.  For Feuerbach humanity moves from healthy gods which are the products of human projection to an abstract God who have become so vague that they will surely disappear.  But the gods are only the mirror of humanity.

The consciousness of the infinite is nothing else than the con­scious­ness of the infinity of consciousness; or, in the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature.. . . The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather the human nature purified, --i.e., contem­plated and revered as another, a distinct being.  All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes of the human nature. (Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, p. 3, 14.)


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