Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1716/Realism in Unbelief
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Volume 133, Issue 1716 : Realism in Unbelief
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There can be no doubt that it is even more incumbent on people who profess a strong religious conviction to realize what they believe, and not to use vague and unmeaning language, than it is incumbent on those who declare that on all these subjects their judgment is suspended — that they see the weakness of every form of dogmatism, positive and negative — to avoid phrases which imply their concurrence in either the faith or the dogmatic disbelief of other men. To use hollow words concerning subjects on which we profess deep and solemn convictions is clearly less excusable than to use hollow words on subjects on which we profess to be in a state of complete uncertainty, just as it is less excusable to use hollow words with intimate friends, with whom every expression should be trustworthy, than it is with mere acquaintances, with whom phrases are usually interpreted as carrying more superficial and less seriously weighed meaning. It is more excusable to trifle with a suspended judgment, than it is to trifle with religious convictions. Even if one whose judgment is suspended does seem sometimes to assume a belief he has not, or a disbelief he has not, there is less of treason to the truth in it than there is when one whose judgment is deeply convinced on subjects of the highest moment uses, in a thoroughly unreal sense, words which ought to mark the focus of his highest feelings, the springs of all his hopes or all his fears. But then this applies rather to the school of true sceptics, than to the school of enthusiasts in positivism or humanism, or any of the new "isms" whose exponents offer us a substitute for Christianity that is to rise above Christianity, to dispel all its narrow and selfish dreams, and to provide in its place the fullest life and the noblest aims possible to men on earth. Bishop Ellicott, in the thoughtful and interesting, if not always very thorough-going addresses on "Modern Unbelief" which he has recently delivered in the diocese of Gloucester and Bristol, has drawn attention to the Christian tone of sentiment so often now adopted by those who repudiate earnestly the Christian and even the theistic faith, and he has rightly classed it as one of the peculiar dangers of the present time — though it is also, we think, quite as much a danger to the rationalists who encourage such a tone of sentiment amongst their followers, as it is to the loose-minded Christians who are attracted by it — that you see such an astonishing affinity for the moods and emotions appropriate to the Christian faith under cover of a creed which rejects and despises that faith. For instance, the bishop quotes from Mr. Fiske's "Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy" the following passage: "Every temptation that is resisted, every sympathetic impulse that is discreetly yielded to, every noble aspiration that is encouraged, every sinful thought that is repressed, every bitter word that is withheld, adds its little item to the impetus of the great movement which is bearing humanity onwards towards a richer life and higher character. Out of individual rectitude come the rectitude and happiness of the community; so that the ultimate salvation of mankind is to be wrought out solely by that obedience to the religious instinct which urges the individual, irrespective of utilitarian considerations, to live in conformity with nature's requirements. 'Nearer, my God, to thee,' is the prayer dictated by the religious faith of past ages, to which the deepest scientific analysis of the future may add new meanings, but of which it can never impair the primary significance." What a writer who, according to Bishop Ellicott, "distinctly opposes and condemns the Christian conception of a personal God," means by "Nearer, my God to thee," unless, perhaps, it be in the sense of one of the dramatis personæ of M. Renan's recent dialogues, who says that after organizing society, the next duty of thinking men will be "to organize God," it is not easy to conceive. If the Cause of the universe be not above it, but inferior to it, if, as the modern pantheists teach, it is by evolution only that the unknown and unknowable Cause attains anything like self-consciousness, the prayer "Nearer, my God to thee," in the mouth of such a one, must be either a mere empty aspiration after his own share in a universal development which no one can either advance or retard for a moment, or an ejaculation suited to a cast-off belief, and of which the "primary significance" is not only "impaired," but wholly lost. Surely a writer of this kind is trifling with very serious subjects, when he professes that language whose whole scope implies a divine life of the highest imaginable perfection and love in the Creator of the universe, loses none of its meaning in the mouth of one who regards the Cause of the universe as unknown and unknowable, and therefore, of course, as not a proper object for human love at all. But Mr. Fiske is not alone in this use of the language of faith and feeling towards what is not a proper object for any feeling except mere intellectual wonder, or in speaking with the utmost confidence of what the unknown and unknowable Cause is about to do for the human race. Even Miss Harriet Martineau, who confidently expected, and indeed, if we may judge by her language, positively relished, the thought of personal annihilation, — who, indeed, took credit for that annihilation almost as if she were discounting the value of a contingent remainder of slight probability, — regarded it as one of the great advantages of her new freedom that she could be certain, first, that the Cause of the universe was "wholly out of the sphere of human attributes;" and next, that "the special destination of my race is infinitely nobler than the highest proposed under a scheme of divine government." Yet such benevolent presages for the future of her race were evidently mere leaps in the dark for one who boasted that the ultimate source of being was quite beyond the sphere of human attributes. If the "process of the suns" has ripened men's thoughts, yet it will, to all appearance, rot them too. A Cause which takes no special account of man, except as one phase in the infinite variety of successive change, is just as likely to get rid of the race, as of each individual of the race. You cannot argue from actual historical progress, unless you also go back to the ages which preceded life, and note that in our own satellite — the moon — for instance, there have apparently already elapsed uncounted ages since the last organization such as we know on the earth was extinct. Once launched into the sphere in which human love and faith and hope have no meaning, to indulge glorious visions for our race, except of the most ephemeral and conditional kind, is a sheer and very cheap bit of sentimentalism, like wishing your friend the good luck to pick up a magnificent diamond in the streets, or bidding your betrothed "become the bride of a ducal coronet, and forget me." Of course, it is quite reasonable, on the ground of pure experience, to hope that as improvement has gone on so long, — for so many thousand years, — the same improvement may continue for, at all events, a few hundred years more, in the absence of any cosmic catastrophe which might prevent it. But that is a very different thing indeed from going into raptures as to the far higher destiny which you have, as an agnostic, a right to anticipate for your race than any theist — who believes the Creator to have a special purpose in making man in his own image — has any right to anticipate. That is using unreal words, — playing fast and loose with the unknown and unknowable, in the very way in which Christians are (too often justly) charged with playing fast and loose with the solemn truths they profess.
But perhaps the most curious instance of this tendency of the enthusiasts of humanism to take credit for religious sentiments and affections better a great deal than Christianity itself could justify, is to be found in Mr. Frederic Harrison's contribution to the new "Symposium" in the Nineteenth Century. Mr. Frederic Harrison — one of the most distinguished of the English Comtists, — will hear of nothing supernatural. He rejects all theology, and says religion must be grounded entirely on what is "frankly human." But it must be a great deal more than mere morality: —
- Motality will never suffice for life; and every attempt to base our existence on morality alone, or to crown our existence with morality alone, must certainly fail. For this is to fling away the most powerful motives of human nature. To reach these is the privilege of Religion alone. And those who trust that the Future can ever be built on Science and Civilization, without Religion, are attempting to build a pyramid of bricks without straw. The solution, we believe, is a non-theological religion. There are some who amuse themselves by repeating that this is a contradiction in terms, that religion implies theology. Yet no one refuses the name of religion to the systems of Confucius and Buddha, though neither has a trace of theology. But disputes about a name are idle. If they could debar us from the name of Religion, no one could disinherit us of the thing. We mean by religion a scheme which shall explain to us the relations of the faculties of the human soul within, of man to his fellow-men beside him, to the world and its order around him; next, that which brings him face to face with a Power to which he must bow, with a Providence which he must love and serve, with a Being which he must adore, — that which, in fine, gives man a doctrine to believe, a discipline to live by, and an object to worship. This is the ancient meaning of religion, and the fact of religion all over the world in every age. What is new in our scheme is merely that we avoid such terms as "Infinite," "Absolute," "Immaterial," and vague negatives altogether, resolutely confining ourselves to the sphere of what can be shown by experience, of what is relative and not absolute, and wholly and frankly human.
On the contrary, we should have said that what is new in the positivist scheme is that it proposes to foster and cultivate feelings of love and adoration in man towards an object which it does not even pretend to exhibit as possessing any of the characteristics fitted to inspire those feelings. Waive the words infinite, absolute, immaterial, and all other vague negatives as completely as you will, and what is there in the mere procession of events which have made human nature what it is, and us what we are, — if this has been done without purpose, without sympathy, without love for us or for our fellow-creatures here, — to justify even a momentary emotion of love, or a single act of service, towards the chain of natural facts and laws which take the place, we suppose, in positivism of the theist's Providence? We can understand, indeed, the necessity of bowing to the power which unrolls itself in the universe, though not any duty of doing so. It is no one's duty to acquiesce heartily in the succession of day and night, or in the circulation of the blood and the secretions of the body, — any more than in being born. But why am I to "love" the physical providence that adapts me to the world and the world to me? Does any one think of loving the locomotive or the steam that whirls him along the line, or even the sea which bears him on its waves, or the electric current that shoots along the wire? "Love" and "adoration" must be kept for moral qualities of some sort. No one can adore Mont Blanc, though he can admire it, or Vesuvius in eruption, though he may fear it. If our affections are to be cultivated towards the power which controls our lives, we must know something of that power which will entitle it to our affections. If all we know is that it has produced the universe as we see it, including ourselves, with all the evil and all the good in us; and further, that it furnishes us, — unconsciously, we suppose, according to the positivist religion, — with all we have, both that which we have and love, and that which we have and hate; that it will take us away again before long, and replace us by others; and that as it deals with us, so, in all probability, it will deal with our race, and all the races of living things, — extinguish them, when the time comes, in favor of some other régime, — we do not know how any didactic inculcation of love and adoration could induce reasonable men to foster love, and indulge ad oration, towards a being so closely veiled from the gaze of men. Mr. Frederic Harrison seems to us to desire to borrow from a system which he rejects that which is peculiar to that system. The agnostic may justly inculcate the study of nature's laws, and enlarge on the marvellous storehouses of nature's forces, but as to training us to love an enigma, to ad ore those protean forms of natural energy which result now in the conflagration of a world, and now in the plunging of a planet into the frozen sleep of an Arctic winter, — the attempt must be a failure. As there really is a God who loves us behind this mysterious succession of nothingness, life, pleasure, pain, good, evil, death, memory, and resurrection, that God must be the object of the deepest affections and the profoundest adoration. But for one who will hear of no awful will behind the changes of the external world, to ask for love and adoration towards the unknown power which flows through this strange current of phenomena, is to demand what is unreasonable and monstrous. It is simply unreal sentimentalism to require the attitude of mind appropriate towards a God of love and righteousness, from one who believes in no God of love and righteousness, but only in the great procession of natural phenomena, including — though for a span which is hardly worth mentioning in such an eternal procession as that — the phenomena of our human life.