The Sense of God’s Reality

by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the most eminent and often controversial of the preachers of the first half of the twentieth century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century July 4-11, 1984, p. 677 (reprinted from the November 6, 1919, issue). Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Nothing is more clear in the light of history than this: new political, economic and ecclesiastical machinery does not alone solve problems; it creates problems, and, above all, it puts a strain on moral foundations, on spiritual resources, that must successfully be met or the best-laid plans come down in ruin.

Our modern world is headed straight for some gigantic disappointments. Never were such splendid plans afoot in human history before; never were there so many men and women of high hope and far-seeing expectancy at work on schemes for human betterment so vast in scope and so promising in outlook. Statesmen dare to plan for organized international cooperation; workingmen dare to expect within this generation the launching of industrial democracy; churchmen plot campaigns that marshal millions into a united force.

Nothing is more clear, however, in the light of history, than this: new political, economic and ecclesiastical machinery does not alone solve problems; it creates problems, and, above all, it puts a strain on moral foundations, on spiritual resources, that must successfully be met or the best-laid plans come down in ruin. You cannot build a new forty-story business block on the old three-story foundations. With every expansion of the structure, with every elevation in the plans, the underlying bases become not less but more important. It takes far more brotherly spirit to run a League of Nations than to run a village; it takes far more personal unselfishness and reliability to make industrial democracy a success than it does to conduct the present order; and if the extensive Christian plans now afoot are to achieve their aims, the Christian faith in God must grow accordingly.

Amid all the creak and clatter of our far-flung Christian plans, therefore -- the commissions, committees, campaigns, surveys, federations and budgets -- all thoughtful Christians who are interested to avoid the disillusionment which the failure of so much splendid effort would inevitably cause will bear down hard upon the central matter: the achievement of a deeper sense of God’s reality. That is the foundation of all our building. If that weakens, the excellence of the superstructure does not matter. That is the dynamic. If that fails, the skillful workmanship of the engine is effort thrown away.

Now, the sense of God’s reality is a different experience from belief that God exists. All men believe that natural beauty exists, but some men feel it vividly, rejoice in it heartily, while others are never moved by it at all. From the chords of one man’s heart every sound and sight and scent on an autumn day will draw music like a symphony. He knows what Keats meant when he sang:

Oh, what a wild and harmonious tune

My spirit struck from all the beautiful!

But here is another man who does not vividly perceive in nature any beauty whatsoever. He wishes that he did. He reads Wordsworth to see if he can find the secret, but it continually eludes him. He reads radiant descriptions of sunsets in the poets where the sun rides the western sea like a "golden galleon" or

Throws his weary arms far up the sky,

And with vermilion-tinted fingers

Toys with the long tresses of the Evening Star.

Then he goes out to see a sunset, and he does not see anything like that at all.

That is the contrasting experience of men with reference to God, which is, of all others, most baffling. Atheism is not our greatest danger, but a shadowy sense of God’s reality. We do not disbelieve that God exists, but we often lack a penetrating and convincing consciousness that we are dealing with him and he with us. This is the inner problem of prayer. And it cannot be amiss for any man or woman, concerned with the movements of the churches, to consider with what insights he can surround and penetrate his praying, so that in it all a vital consciousness of the divine presence shall make glory at the center.

The troubles of our generation which so urgently demand of us a fresh consciousness of God can help us to the very experience for which they cry. For God is like water -- the intense reality of it is never appreciated by one who has not known thirst. So God’s unreality to us in part is due to our easy-going way of taking him for granted, with little sense of dire and dreadful need. Before the war, how many of us, conventionally religious, were dealing with God so! Then the war broke out, and who could light-heartedly take God for granted any more! We needed him too vitally to take him for granted. This world was a wilder place than we had used to think. Its boisterous currents showed bewildering power when they had overflowed their banks, and all our little human preventions were washed away like piles of sand that children raise against the onset of the tides.

Even now dismal possibilities lie ahead -- upheaval, anarchy, violence; it may be the League of Nations spoiled by opposition, apathy or treachery, and the whole world going on with this military business, using all inventive genius for destructive ends and making a worse hell of it all than the Stone Age a thousand times over. Or, on the other side, what glorious possibilities! What hopes worth praying, toiling, fighting for! If only this world were meant to enshrine a better order; if only creation were moral to the core; if only -- God! For if creation is not basically moral, no God at all, and we with unaided human fingers are trying to make an ethical oasis in a spiritual desert, where no oasis was ever meant to be, then we are beaten at the start. Soon or later the desert will heave its burning sands against us and hurl its blistering winds across us, and all that we have dreamed and done will come to naught.

Tremendously, we need God! For tasks inward and outward, personal and international, against sins deep-seated, inveterate and malign, we need God. Let the need, like thirst, make its own satisfaction real! Let the beatitude on those athirst and hungry be fulfilled! For until a man comes to God in such a mood there is no possibility of reality in prayer.

The great social needs and the projected social crusades of our days, which so depend on faith in God, may well themselves create the atmosphere in which we find God. It is a grievous misinterpretation to suppose that God’s reality dawned on men, like the Old Testament prophets, in mystical aloofness from the social needs and social movements of their time.

Moses came face to face with the Eternal in the Wilderness? To be sure, but the journey that so ended in a lonesome place before the face of God did not start in solitude at all. It began in Egypt amid a suffering people. He heard whips whistling over the backs of the Hebrews until he winced. He saw women staggering under the loads of bricks to build Pharaoh’s treasure cities, until he could tolerate the infamy no longer. One day his scorching indignation burst all bonds. A brute of an Egyptian laying the knout upon a Hebrew! Furiously the son of Pharaoh’s daughter ripped his dignities and titles off. Only one thing mattered -- just one thing: Israel must be free! There, in a high hour of social passion and sacrifice, began the road that, leading out from fury to wisdom, brought him at last to God.

No pathway into the consciousness of God’s reality has been trodden by nobler men than this road of social devotion and sacrifice. God’s greatest souls have often started like Elijah, determined that at whatever cost he would denounce and defeat the tyranny of Ahab, and they have ended like Elijah, on the mountainside, listening to the still small voice of God. They have started like Dante, with a passion to save Italy from chaos, and they have ended like Dante, standing with Beatrice before the Great White Throne. They have started like Lincoln, vowing that if ever he had a chance to hit slavery, he would hit it hard, and they have ended like Lincoln, saying, "Many times I have been driven to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go."

Such an open road to the vivid sense of God’s reality is waiting for every eager and prophetic heart today. The needs of men, the sins that must be blasted with concerted indignation, the causes that invite our ardent championship -- these are not alien from the problem of prayer. They are a blazed trail into the secrets of prayer. The great prophets of God have moved along this path into a vivid sense of God’s reality. Sacrifice for social weal unveiled the face of the Eternal.

The sense of God’s reality is a vital experience, and like every other vital experience we don’t so much learn it, or achieve it, or clamber up to it; we catch it by contagion. Some things never can be taught, no matter with what skilled witchery of words the case is stated and the lessons analyzed. Courage, for example! There doubtless is a theory of courage, but no careful learning of it would make anyone courageous. Indeed, in any situation, like the front line trenches at the zero hour, when courage is an absolute necessity and every man with all his heart is ardently desiring all of it that he can get, the one intolerable thing would be to talk about it.

But an example of it -- how welcome and contagious! Bravery is fire; it kindles a kindred conflagration in every heart that has tinder in it. We not only learn what courage is by its incarnations, but we are set ablaze by it ourselves, and all the courage that we ever had we neither generated nor achieved; we caught it.

When men in trouble seek for fortitude, they will not find it in an exhortation. But some Bunyan, writing Pilgrim’s Progress in a prison where it was so damp that, as he cried, "The moss did verily grow upon mine eyebrows"; some Kernahan, born without arms and legs, but by sheer grit fighting his way up until he sat in the House of Commons; some Henry M. Stanley, born in a workhouse and buried in Westminster Abbey; some Dante, his Beatrice dead, he himself an exile from the city of his love, distilling all his agony into a song that became the "voice of ten silent centuries", or some more obscure and humble life close at hand where handicaps have been mastered, griefs have been built into character, disappointments have been turned into trellises, not left a bare, unsightly thing -- such incarnations of fortitude and faith have infectious power. We win fortitude by falling in love with it. We are not taught it. We catch it.

Let a man in his thinking use such reasonable ways of conceiving God that he may help and not hinder his growing sense of God’s reality. There was a time when God’s immediate presence in our lives was not readily pictured. When men argued about God they said that the world was like a watch. It presupposed somebody who made it. That is, God was a mechanician; he had made this watch of a world and had gone off and left it to run by its own mainspring. God was a carpenter. He had built this house of a world and had left it to stand by its own laws. God was an engineer. He had thrown open the throttle of this world, had leaped the cab, and now the locomotive of itself goes thundering down the rails. Where is God? Back there somewhere!

We have no right to hold such a caricature of God. God is no man in the moon. God is in this world as we are in our bodies. Where are you? Is your hand you? Your eye? Is any part of your body you? We cannot see without our eyes, but we are not our eyes. We cannot see without the optic nerve, but we are not the optic nerve. We cannot see without the temporal lobe of the brain, but we are not the lobe of the brain. Where are we? All through our bodies we seem to be; yet nowhere in our bodies can we locate ourselves.

"God is a spirit," we read, and the mystery of it seems very great. But man is a spirit. Manifestly man is here; the evidence of his presence is on every side; nothing are we more certain of than that man is here -- yet we cannot find man anywhere. Bring the scalpel and dissect; where is he? Bring the microscope and look; where is he? As truly about man as about God, could one cry, "Oh, that I knew where I might find him!"

As we are in our bodies, but not of them, so is God in his world. And the greatest event in man’s life is the vital apprehension of that not as theory but as experience. A man perceives at last that he is like an aeolian harp. Fit the harp’s frame to the window ever so carefully, yet it is not at all fitted -- not until the invisible winds make music on its strings. So man fits his body to the framework of this physical world, fits nerves to comfortable circumstances and mind to information, but the whole man is not so adjusted. Conscience, love, ideals, thoughts that "break through language and escape," faiths and hopes that make us men indeed -- not till the invisible so makes music in us are we completely fitted to this world.

And the longer a man lives the more it becomes clear that all other adjustments are for the sake of this highest adjustment. This is a spiritual world, then, at its center. God is here, playing upon our lives. After that vision, clearly seen, one does not go out to seek God again. Shall man sally forth to hasten the sunrise? What has he to do with that? Let him go home and cleanse the windows. The sun is rising. It will find him out even in his little home and make him radiant if the way is clear. Shall a man go out to make the tides come in? What power has he? Let him rather take the sands away from the harbor’s mouth. The tides are rising. They will come in if there is a way.

This, indeed, is the conclusion of the whole matter. God is seeking us. We do not need to search for him. He is the shepherd; we are the sheep. We need to let him find us.