Be Still and Know … What God?
I could not help an ironic chuckle as I read the inscription at my feet: ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10a). It was written on a large, clay plaque on the floor of an open hallway through which one had to pass to get to the walking trail. It was the ‘Oubaas1 Trail’ on the farm of Jan Christiaan Smuts, outside Irene, a small town between the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. The farm is now a museum dedicated to this remarkable soldier, statesman, scholar, philosopher and naturalist who played such a pivotal role not only in South African but world affairs.
Born in 1870 in Riebeeck West in the then British Cape Colony2, Smuts had a conservative, Calvinist upbringing. Tending the livestock on his parent’s vast farm gave him much solitary time. He was sent to school at age 12 after the death of his older brother, so that he might become a minister. A brilliant scholar, after only 4 years of schooling he went on to read law at Cambridge in England.
Although retaining throughout his life an admiration and attraction to the British sense of fairness, he was dismayed at the infamous ‘Jameson Raid’ orchestrated by British imperialists. This was designed to precipitate a war with the Boer Republics of Transvaal and Freestate in order to get them under British control due to the vast mineral wealth that was increasingly being discovered there. He later enlisted to fight against the British in the Second Anglo-Boer War.3 Smuts acquitted himself with distinction as a general of the guerilla army in a war that, though won by the British, exacted a huge toll in wealth, manpower and embarrassment to the British government at the time. One of the last fighters to throw in the towel, he was intimately involved in the negotiated peace. Smuts went on to become a general and member of the British Imperial War Cabinet in WWI and an Allied Field Marshall in WWII. His alliance with the former ‘enemy’ cost him dearly in his political career in South Africa although he still was Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa for a total of 11 years.
Jan Smuts is regarded as the Founding Father of the League of Nations after WWI, and was a founder of the United Nations subsequent to the Second World War. He was also instrumental in the transformation of the British Empire into the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Less well known are his philosophical ideas which have an abiding influence today. He coined the term ‘Holism’ in his 1926 book ‘Holism and Evolution’. In it he espoused his pantheistic ideas of a oneness of mind, life and matter and the pursuit of the development of ‘wholes’ in the universe and thereby the increasing potential for further evolution and ever greater ‘wholes’. In fact he saw Holism as the driving force or spirit of evolution, enabling matter to evolve contrary to its propensity to disorder and decay. His philosophy assumed the truth of evolution, which he accepted as an absolute scientific fact. Prominent in his library, which can be seen through a protective window at the Smuts Museum, are books by Darwin and A. R. Wallace. His ideas are probably more influenced by the pantheism of Wallace than the pure naturalism of Darwin.
In a letter to Queen Frederica of Greece shortly before his death, he wrote of the awareness of the Divine, ‘not as something beyond, but as the soul and essence of nature and oneself… we are truly one with all things…. One realizes this at great moments of inspiration when the self merges with the whole…’
Along the Oubaas trail and in the Garden of Silence where it begins, are plaques which echo some of Smuts’s ideas. Just outside the hallway mentioned earlier is a plaque that dedicates the garden and trail to all those who seek world peace and harmony through silence. A beacon near ‘Smuts’s Koppie’4 informs the hiker that this was Smuts’s ‘temple’ where he would come daily seeking to become ‘one with all things’.
It was in this context that I found the message on the plaque at my feet after the walk so ironic. ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ Laid in 1971, it seemed almost an embarrassed ‘tacking-on’ of Christian sentiment to try and balance the controversial religious ideas of a South African hero. One had to ask the question, ‘To what god were we to listen in this Garden of Silence?’ Smuts’s god, the god of ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’, inseparable from the universe, impersonal and therefore by ‘its’ very nature, unable to utter those words?
How different from the God revealed in the book in which those words are found, the Bible. Here we find the eternal, transcendent Creator of all things and of man in His image. A holy and personal God who seeks to restore the relationship with His creatures lost at the Fall, and for whom He lovingly sent His only begotten Son to pay the price to make that relationship possible. The God demanding to be known and acknowledged in those words is not the god with whom Smuts and increasing numbers today seek to become one with.
The incongruity of that plaque in that setting made me think of the attempts of Christians to use ‘theistic evolution’ and similar notions to stick the message of the Bible onto the walls of the temple of evolution. They hope to be taken seriously by those who walk those halls, but fail to realize the dichotomy of the messages of Naturalism and God’s Word. In that evolutionary context, God’s message falls to the ground and is trampled on unnoticed—just as many today walk over those words at the Smuts Museum, robbed of meaning in a shrine of New-Age religious ideas.
References and notes
- Oubaas (literally ‘old boss’) was a servile but respectful and even affectionate title given by servants to the master of a household in South Africa. Return to text.
- Now in the Western Cape, one of the nine provinces of the Republic of South Africa. Return to text.
- Known by Afrikaners as the ‘Vryheidsoorlog’ or ‘Freedom War’. Return to text.
- A ‘koppie’ is a South African term for a small hill, often with a rocky outcrop at the top. Return to text.