Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/May 1887/The Natural versus the Supernatural
By JOHN BURROUGHS.
OUR theological professors make a mistake when they think they have weakened or parried the objections of science to their doctrines by pointing to the fact that science is constantly revising or reversing its own conclusions; that what was deemed good science at one time is found to be false science at another. "This modern infallibility which men call science " is a phrase used by Rev. Dr. Jenkins in criticising in the "Evangelist" my paper on "Science and Theology" in the December number of this magazine.
"We who are yet upon the safe side of the ministerial dead-line," he says, "can remember when it was scientific to assert the diverse origin of the race 'from four or six pairs' of progenitors; and we have come to the day in which science will not leave us as much as Adam and Eve for a beginning. We have learned the igneous origin of granite, just in time to be commanded to unlearn it, and substitute an aqueous origin." And the conclusion, therefore, is that science is discredited, and that he who builds upon it plants his house upon the sands. But science makes no claim to infallibility; it leaves that claim to be made by theology. "This shifting of positions and this changing of results" but marks its growth, its development; and it is precisely this active and inquiring spirit, this readiness to correct its errors, and this eagerness to reach a larger generalization, that makes it the enemy of the traditional theology. It abandoned the Ptolemaic system of astronomy for the Copernican, because the latter was found to be the most complete generalization; but theology still adheres to its Ptolemaic system of things. To seek to discredit science because it has made mistakes, and has had to unlearn many things, is to deny the very principle of progress; it is to reflect upon the child because he grows into a man. The main outlines of the physical universe science has undoubtedly finally settled; the great facts of astronomy and geology are not to be reversed or set aside. It is only in the details, the filling in of the picture, that errors are still likely to occur. No, what theology has to fear, and what is working such mischief with it, is not the "infallibility" of science, but it is the scientific spirit, the spirit that demands complete verification, that applies past experience to new problems, that sees that immutable laws lie at the bottom of all phenomena, and that is skeptical of all exceptions to the logical course of events until they are irrefragably proved.
Science is ignorant enough, without doubt, about many things. After it has done its best, the mystery of creation is as deep as before. But what it has taught the race, and what the race can never unlearn, is, that the sequence of cause and effect is inviolable, that the order of the physical universe is rational, that creation is not an historical event but a perpetual process, that there is no failure and no disorder in Nature, and that to approximate to anything like a right understanding of things the personal, or, if I may coin the word, the anthrocentric, point of view must be abandoned.
Dr. Jenkins is unfortunate in confronting the kind of "exceptions" which I aver science can not recognize with the fact that water, in opposition to all other material substances, expands under a certain degree of cold. But is there any known exception to this law of water? Has water ever been known to reverse this process in freezing? If so, the exception would indeed stagger science; it would be a miracle. A child born of a woman, but without an earthly father, and of a superhuman species, is the kind of exception which I averred science can not recognize; but does this bear any analogy to the exceptional behavior of water while freezing, when compared with other substances? It used to be believed that in every animal that possessed a circulation the blood always took one definite and invariable direction, but, in 1824, Huxley says, it was discovered that a class of animals called Ascidians furnished an exception; the heart of these animals, after beating a certain number of times, stops, and then begins to beat in the opposite way, so as to reverse the course of the blood, which returns by-and-by to its original direction. Such an exception does not disturb the man of science; it only teaches him greater caution in making his deductions. But if one Ascidian, and but one, could be found whose heart beat like that of other animals, that would be a puzzle to him. Or if one comet, and only one, should appear carrying its tail toward the sun instead of from it, cometary astronomy would be reduced to chaos. A floating feather is no exception to the law of gravitation, but a floating stone and a falling feather would be an exception. Science as well as experience finds exceptions to general rules everywhere, but these exceptions are constant and as strictly the result of natural law as anything else. Faith in the continuity of Nature, upon which the scientist builds, no less than every man in the conduct of his life, does not mean sameness or identity of all physical processes, but it means identity of these processes under like conditions. Given the same conditions, and the same results always follow. Water obeys its laws under low temperature, and iron its. It is not long since that the Bishop of Carlisle urged as an argument against the uniformity of Nature the fact that the weather is changeable! If his lordship could have shown that the laws which govern the formation of clouds, and the precipitation of rain and snow are changeable, or ever work inversely, he would have made out his case. The fathers of the Church believed that the flesh of the peacock never decayed. St. Augustine said he had ascertained by experiment that this is a fact. If this were so, it would indeed be a remarkable exception; but the man of science would at once set about ascertaining its natural cause, without for one moment attributing it to a supernatural one. But without trying the experiment ourselves, does any sane man to-day doubt that either the saint deceived himself, or else that he was not honest? His statement is incredible, because it contradicts all the rest of our knowledge relating to the decomposition of animal tissue.
I suppose the last thing our fathers would have thought of doing, would have been to try to reconcile their conception of Christianity with their stores of natural knowledge. They did not feel the need, which we to-day feel so keenly, of any such reconciliation. They cherished their faith as something apart, something not founded in the order of this world, something to which science and all that pertains to the "natural man" are necessarily strangers. The order of this world is carnal; it is full of evil, and is separated by an impassable gulf from the sacred and the divine. A vast number of most excellent and pious people still feel in this way about their religious belief; it is all the more sacred and precious to them because it has no relation to the natural course of mundane things. It forms for them an escape from the humdrum, from the failures, and from the materialism of life. Who can recall without deepest sympathy and love the religious beliefs and observances of the many simple and credulous people he has known in his youth, perhaps of his own parents or grandparents, with their fervid piety but merciless creeds, their faith in their church and in the saving power of its sacraments, their unquestioning belief in the literal truth of the Bible, every word of it—the Fall, the Flood, the miracles, and all? What a refuge their faith was to them in times of trouble; what an avenue of escape into spiritual and ideal regions! It saved them; why can it not save us? For the simple reason that it is no longer credible to us: we are born into another world; we can not believe the old creed, try we never so hard. It was adequate to their knowledge, to their development, but it is not adequate to ours. The old terms and symbols satisfied them, but they are fast becoming obsolete to us. The whole aspect of the universe has changed. But our salvation is to be had upon essentially the same terms as our fathers'—namely, by fidelity to what we see and feel to be true.
"Few minds in earnest," says Cardinal Newman, "can remain at ease without some sort of rational grounds for their religious belief." But it is equally true that half-formed, half-developed minds, which means the great mass of the people of any age, rather draw back from exposing their faith to a light so common, so secular as that of reason. Plutarch quotes Sophocles as saying that the Deity is
but adds that the vulgar look with high veneration upon whatever is extravagant and extraordinary, and conceive a more than common sanctity to lie concealed under the veil of obscurity. The average mind clings to the mysterious, the supernatural. Goethe, as lately quoted by Matthew Arnold, said those who have science and art have religion; and added, let those who have not science and art have religion, that is, let them have the popular faith; let them have this escape, because the others are closed to them. Without any hold upon the ideal, or any insight into the beauty and fitness of things, the people turn from the tedium and the grossness and prosiness of daily life, to look for the divine, the sacred, the saving, in the wonderful, the miraculous, and in that which baffles reason. The disciples of Jesus thought of the kingdom of heaven as some external condition of splendor, and pomp, and power which was to be ushered in by-and-by by hosts of trumpeting angels, and the Son of man in great glory, riding upon the clouds, and not for one moment as the still small voice within them. To find the divine and the helpful in the mean and familiar, to find religion without the aid of any supernatural machinery, to see the spiritual, the eternal life in and through the life that now is—in short, to see the rude, prosy earth as a star in the heavens, like the rest, is indeed the lesson of all others the hardest to learn.
But we must learn it sooner or later. There surely comes a time when the mind perceives that this world is the work of God also and not of devils, and that in the order of Nature we may behold the ways of the Eternal; in fact, that God is here and now in the humblest and most familiar fact, as sleepless and active as ever he was in old Judea. This perception has come and is coming to more minds to-day than ever before—this perception of the modernness of God, of the modernness of inspiration, of the modernness of religion; that there was never any more revelation than there is now, never any more miracles or signs and wonders, never any more conversing of God with man, never any more Garden of Eden, or fall of Adam, or thunder of Sinai, or ministering angels, etc.; in fact, that these things are not historical events, but inward experiences and perceptions perpetually renewed or typified in the growth of the race. This is the modern gospel; this is the one vital and formative religious thought of modern times.
The mind that has fully opened to this perception no longer divorces its faith from its reason, no longer rests in the idea of a dualism in creation or opposition between God and the world, and can not feel at ease until its religious belief is in harmony with its natural knowledge. The two must not be at war. What we hope for, what we aspire to, must be consistent with what we know. Faith and science must, indeed, go hand in hand. The conception of religion as a miraculous scheme for man's redemption interpolated into history, God's original design with reference to man having miscarried, is entirely undermined and overthrown by the perception of the unity and consistency of creation as revealed by science.
Who does not see that it adds vastly to the credibility of a doctrine or theory to find that it fits in with other things, that it is not an exception or an isolated circumstance, but is in a line with facts and principles of the truth of which we are already assured? Suppose the theory of Christianity, as popularly held, had something like the breadth of application, or the same warrant and basis in the constitution of things as has, say, the theory of evolution or the doctrine of the conservation of energy; or suppose the dogma of vicarious atonement pleased the mind and harmonized with our sense of the fitness of creation like the modern doctrine of embryology, namely, that embryology is a repetition of past history, that every animal in its development from the egg assumes successively, though briefly, all the forms through which its ancestors have come in the course of the long stretch of geological ages, should we not all at once accept it as true? Would there ever have been any doubters and skeptics? I think not. It is because these things have no such warrant and basis, no such agreement with our perception of the order of the world, that doubters and skeptics exist; it is because they break completely with all the rest of our knowledge of creation.
There is a very marked activity in the theological mind of to-day which has for its end the bridging over of the gulf which exists between natural and what is called "revealed" truth. Half a dozen recent works might be named of which this is the principal aim. That eloquent preacher, Frederick W. Robinson, sought in one of his sermons to give a natural basis to the dogma of vicarious sacrifice, perhaps the most incredible dogma in the popular creed. See, says the eloquent divine, how the mineral must decay before the vegetable can grow; how the vegetable must die before the animal can live; how the animal must perish before we can have roast beef for our dinner. The dove is stricken down by the hawk, the deer by the lion, the winged fish falls into the jaws of the dolphin. "It is the solemn law of vicarious sacrifice again"; and so still higher. "The anguish of the mother is the condition of the child's life." Every civilization is founded upon the labors and sufferings of those who went before. When this law of self-sacrifice is consciously obeyed it becomes the highest moral virtue and reaches heroism. Now, all this is true; it is a part of our natural knowledge. But it is not vicarious sacrifice; it is not sacrifice at all in the true sense. It is the order of the succession of life in Nature. The living present is always reared upon the dead past. Not only men, but races and nations—
"May rise by stepping-stones of their dead selves
The six noble citizens of Calais who surrendered themselves to the vengeance of the English king were offering themselves as a vicarious sacrifice. They were willing to die, that their fellows might live; but this act bears no resemblance to the order of Nature above alluded to, and from which the great preacher drew his illustration. It rises to a region of which unconscious Nature knows nothing—the region of heroism. But neither fact nor set of facts contains any hint that can lead to a rational explanation of how the death of Christ benefited mankind other than in the way the death of every hero benefits us. This is an esoteric, mysterious doctrine upon which no light can be thrown by an appeal to any known fact or law of the visible universe.
The eloquent preacher tries to help out his analogy by an original conception of Sin as "a single world-spirit, exactly as electricity, with which the universe is charged, is indivisible, imponderable, one, so that you can not separate it from the great ocean of fluid. The electric spark that slumbers in the dew-drop is part of the flood which struck the oak. Had that spark not been there, it could be demonstrated that the whole previous constitution of the universe might have been different and the oak not have been struck." Every separate act of sin is the manifestation of an original principle as broad and universal as this—the world-spirit, the spirit of evil. Grant this, and still the connection can not be made. Grant that this world-spirit slew all the prophets, opposes the good in every age, and crucified "the Just One" himself, as, of course, it did and does, how did the death of Christ modify or conquer or remove this spirit, or shield man from the supposed wrath of his Creator, in any other way than the death of every just person for a worthy cause accomplishes these ends? These aTc mysteries that can not be explained, or the explanation even hinted at. The human faculties of reason and insight can never fathom them. Dying that others may live is truly the order of this universe, its natural order. But what examples history affords of its having been in so many instances the conscious human order the order which makes heroes! Even in our selfish and materialistic age, as it is called, not a year passes but our pulse is quickened by the recital of some act of heroism during some disaster upon the sea or in the mines or in burning cities, wherein men have calmly faced death that others might have a chance to live. But there is no analogy here to the popular theory of the sufferings and death of Christ. All men have to suffer the pangs of mortality just the same, and the consequences of sin just the same. When our theologians say that "Christ suffered for our sins, and that, because he suffered, our sins are forgiven," they make a statement that can not be rationally conceived; they use a language not comprehensible by human sense—the language of mysticism.
When we regard sin disinterestedly and in the light of our real knowledge, we find it but a relative term. It is not a positive thing as electricity is, but the absence of a thing, as cold is the absence of heat, or as darkness is the absence of light. It is the imperfection of human nature when tried by its highest possibilities. The theological conception of sin as imputed guilt has no more place in rational knowledge than sorcery has. The deeper our insight into the method of Nature, or the more we are impressed with the order and consistency of the world, the more incredible the popular Christianity seems to us. To the man of science the old theology is like the traditional conception of angels—men with both wings and arms.
This conception breaks with the structural plan of all vertebrates, the same as theology does with the law of cause and effect. Human beings, with wings in place of arms, might be contrary to the fact; but such a conception does not violate the homologies of Nature, but beings with both wings and arms have no counterpart in the world. They are not merely contrary to experience, they are contrary to the fundamental principle of structure that runs through the animal kingdom. But when these armed and winged beings were first conceived of, this fact was not known as it is now, and the un-natural element in Christianity could not have been appreciated in past ages as it is to-day.
The doctrinal part of the popular Christianity, its supernaturalism, is an inheritance from the past as much as witchcraft or magic is. But it did not break with human knowledge then; it was in strict keeping with the elements of the marvelous, and the exceptional of which human knowledge was so largely made up. There was no science in those days, no conception of the course of human or natural events as the result of immutable law. The personal point of view prevailed in everything. Everything revolved about man; superhuman beings took sides for or against him. Indeed, so far as science or a rational conception of things is concerned, the fathers of the Church, and the framers of our popular theology, were mere children. Considerations were all-powerful with them, which, to-day, would not have a feather's weight with a man of ordinary intelligence. Children readily, even eagerly, believe almost any impossible thing you may tell them about Nature. As yet they have no insight into the course of Nature, or of the law of cause and effect, no fund of experience to serve as a touch-stone to the false or impossible. The same was true of the fathers, and of the races that witnessed the advent of Christianity—great in moral and spiritual matters, but mere children so far as the development of their scientific faculties were concerned; and it is from the scientific faculties that theology, as such, proceeds. Theology is an attempt to define to the understanding the basis of man's religious convictions and aspirations; it aims to be the science of God's dealings with man and Nature, and as such it is bound to share the infirmity of the logical and scientific faculty of the times in which it arises.
The contemporaries of Jesus thought it not unreasonable that John the Baptist should come to life after his head had been cut off; that the prophet Elias should reappear upon earth, or that Jeremiah should come back. These notions were in strict keeping with the belief in the marvelous and the supernatural that then possessed men's minds. The four Gospels were a growth out of this atmosphere, and the current theology is a continuation of the same faith in prodigies as opposed to natural occurrences. The fathers knew little more about the true order of the physical universe than savages. They believed, for instance, the use of the spade made the earth fertile because it was of the form of a cross; that the sun, moon, and stars shone less brightly since the fall. Irenæus gave, as his reasons for accepting the four Gospels and no more, the fact that there are four universal winds and four quarters of the earth, and because living creatures are quadriform. Origen believed that the sun, moon, and stars were living, rational beings, capable of sinning, and are subject to vanity, etc., and that they pray to the Supreme Being through his only-begotten Son. Tertullian shared the belief of his contemporaries that the hyena changes its sex every year, being alternately male and female. Clement, of Rome, believed the story of the phœnix, that wonderful bird of Arabia, which was said to live five hundred years; and when it died at the end of that time, that a worm sprang from its decaying flesh which soon became a new phœnix, which forthwith took up the bones of its defunct parent and flew away to the city of Heliopolis, in Egypt, and laid them on the altar of the sun. The natural philosopher has always taught that "death is a law and not a punishment," but "the fathers taught it is a penal infliction introduced into the world on account of the sin of Adam, which was also the cause of the appearance of all noxious plants, of all convulsions in the material globe, and, as was sometimes asserted, even of a diminution of the light of the sun." How dormant and puerile man's scientific faculties were during the early centuries of Christianity, when the foundations of the science of theology were laid, is well illustrated in a work called the "Christian Opinion concerning the World," by the monk Cosmas, of the sixth century. Cosmas taught that the earth was literally a tabernacle, because St. Paul speaks of it as such, and that Moses exactly copied its form in his tabernacle. It is a flat parallelogram, twice as long as it is broad, roofed in by the sky, which is glued to the outer edges of the earth. It consists of two stories, in one of which dwell the blessed, and in the other the angels, etc. It is from the type of mind that conceived such notions of the universe as this that we inherit our theology. But it may be replied, men may be feeble in science but great in religion. True, the fathers, many of them, were great in religion, they were great on the moral and spiritual side; but the system of theology they founded aims to be a science; it deals with exact propositions; it is not the work of their subjective religious natures but of their scientific faculties, and as such it is just as artificial, just as puerile and unreal, as the notions of the physical universe to which I have adverted.
The whole Christian dispensation, as expounded by the popular theology, is as little in keeping with the physical order of the world as disclosed by science, or with the natural moral order as disclosed by the conscience, as Indian medicine is in keeping with modern pathology. The whole scheme hinges upon the fall of Adam in paradise as an historical event, an act of disobedience on the part of the original progenitor of the human family, in consequence of which sin and death entered the world, and the suffering and death of Jesus became necessary to bring about a reconciliation between an angry God and rebellious man, etc.; with the attendant doctrine of the mystery of the atonement, of salvation by grace, of the eternal punishment of the pre-Christian nations, etc. Now this conception as science, or as a rational explanation of the world as it is, and of man's salvation, is on a par with Cosmas's theory of the earth with the sky glued to the outer edges. It shows the working of the same type of mind, it rests upon the same arbitrary and artificial view of things.
But, in all these matters, the question now is whether the ancient or the modern point of view shall prevail; whether evolution, or revelation, is the law of the world. The ancient point of view, as we have seen, was exclusive and arbitrary; it looked upon the universe as something made and governed by a being or beings external to it. In medicine, it regarded all disease as the work of evil spirits, that were to be exorcised by charms or amulets or incantations. In politics, it inculcated the divine right of kings, that the king can do no wrong, etc. In political economy, it taught that the interests of nations were mutually antagonistic and destructive of one another. In physical science, it encouraged the notions we have seen. The fathers taught that all men were under condemnation from the moment of their birth, and that at death the souls of unbaptized infants went straight to hell. St. Augustine taught, and the Catholic Church still holds, that when water from the hands of a priest falls upon the head of an unconscious infant, a miraculous change is wrought in its spiritual nature—a change by which it becomes essentially a new and a higher being; and the Church says, with characteristic charity, of him who believes not this impossible doctrine, "Let him be accursed!"
It is this type of mind which fostered alchemy, astrology, sorcery, witchcraft, and demonology. The air and the earth and the waters swarmed with spirits, good and evil; disease, pestilence, storms, and fires and floods were the work of evil spirits; the more kindly motions of Nature were the work of good spirits. A decrepit old woman could turn herself into a wolf and devour her neighbor's flocks. Meteors, eclipses, and comets were portents sent directly from Heaven for the warning of mankind.
How has all this been changed! How completely the mind of man now faces the other away, in everything except in theology—faces toward a natural explanation of all phenomena!
Let no hasty reader conclude that I am arguing against the reality of religion; I am only arguing against the reality of magic and miracles; against the conception of Christianity as a scheme for man's salvation interpolated into human history, and in no sense one with the constitution of the world; against the idea that the spiritual life is in no sense a possible development of man's natural capabilities; but something superadded from without, a unique and peculiar kind of life, which was made possible to man by the life and death of Christ, and in no way possible before that event. It is not an evolution from man's proper nature; it comes from the opposite direction, and is external and supplementary. "Christianity," say the Andover doctors, "is a source of knowledge concerning God which is not given by the external universe nor by the constitution of man, but only by Christ." Religion is still conceived of as a miraculous scheme to remedy some miscarriage or failure in the plan of God's dealings with man, a failure whereby his relation to the race was radically changed. It is looked upon as something naturally foreign to man, something to be ingrafted upon him from without, not related at all to his natural capacity for virtue and goodness; something which a blameless man may live and die without, but which a cut-throat during the last moments of his life upon the scaffold may, by what is called an act of faith and repentance, obtain! Against such notions I am directing my argument; I am urging that the sentiment of religion is the same in all ages and lands, differing in its outward forms, but not in its inward essence, just as the sentiment of patriotism or of loyalty is the same. How is a reasonable man to favor any scheme that rules out the religion of Plato, and Zeno, and Seneca, and Epictetus, and Cicero, and Lucretius, or Spinoza, or of Darwin, as of no avail, as only snares of Satan? The flowering of man's spiritual nature is as natural and as strict a process of evolution as the opening of a rose or a morning- glory. The vital inflorescent forces are from within, and are continuous from the root up. But there is this difference: "While the plant must have a congenial environment, light, warmth, etc., the human flowering often takes place amid the most adverse surroundings; but no more so in the religious sphere than in the intellectual.
Neither would I say that the "conversion" upon which our Puritan ancestors laid such stress, and which is so dramatically illustrated in the case of Paul, was not genuine. It was genuine to them, but it was entirely a subjective phenomenon, like the faith-cures we now often bear about; it was the power of the imagination working upon the conscience. It is not a necessary or universal experience, even among religious people. It may be said without any irreverence that it has gone out of fashion. The predisposition for that kind of experience no longer exists. "The belief in witchcraft," says Milman, "made people fancy themselves witches," and the belief in the efficacy of sudden conversions led to these sorts of moral and spiritual earthquakes.
Science looks upon religion as belonging to the sphere of the natural; it is the legitimate outcome of man's moral nature; the term that best expresses the complete development and flowering of all his faculties. To define it in the guarded terms which Principal Tulloch uses, namely, as "an inner power of Divine mystery awakening the conscience," is to make it something external to man and more or less arbitrary and theological. This view the world has long clung to, but it must go—is going. The Biblical writers had no theology; the Bible is strictly a religious book, and in no sense a theological treatise. Paul developed or outlined some theological notions; but wherein was Paul great—in his theology, or in his religious fervor; in his notions of predestination, or in his aspirations after righteousness? Jesus is as free from any theological bias as a child is from metaphysics. He taught but one thing, namely, that the kingdom of heaven is in the condition of the heart, a condition illustrated by his own life. The vast and elaborate system of theology which grew up out of his parables and his Orientalism, and overshadowed the world for fifteen hundred years or more, and begat some of the darkest crimes the history of man has to show, is as far from his spirit and that of his disciples as the east is from the west.
Undoubtedly, religion knows certain things in a more intimate and personal way than science does; so does poetry, so does literature; and science can understand how this is so. What we receive through the emotions is more vital and personal to us than what reaches us through the reason. The person in whose mind has been awakened a deep love of Christ, comes to know Christ in a way the mere outside observer does not; his spirit takes hold of the Christ-idea, and is filled and modified by it to an extent the other is not. An emotional process is more potent than a rational process. The knowledge thus gained is no more truly knowledge, but it is more vital knowledge. It is not merely conviction; it is attraction and affiliation as well. But this is true not of Christ merely; it is true of the whole range of our experience. If the flower, or the bird, or the rock awaken no emotion in the observer, will he ever come truly to know it? Unless we love an author, can we ever get at his deepest and most precious meaning? Hence Goethe said, "We learn to know nothing but what we love." In this light, science sees that the love of Christ, or of God, may transform a man's life, but not by any peculiar and supernatural process, but by a universal and well-known law, namely, that we grow like that which we love. Every object we look upon or think of with the emotion of love, that object in a measure we become. But, to begin with, we are not capable of loving it until we are in some degree, either potentially or actually, like it. No radically un-Christlike nature will ever come to love Christ. Hence the subtile truth in the old doctrines that have been so hardly and literally stated, "Except God work in you to will and to do," etc. The Christian, the virtuous, pious soul, is born, and not made, just as truly as is the poet or artist, and the "new birth," in the one case, can mean no more than it does in the other. The true Christian only gives a new name to his natural piety or aptitude for Christianity, but in no sense is there a radical change of nature. It is simply a transference of allegiance, as in the case of Paul. All these things may be so stated as to harmonize with the rest of our knowledge, but as expounded in theological books they do not so harmonize, but run counter to it completely. Subjective truths are stated as if they were objective facts; qualities of the mind and spirit are expounded as if they were realities of the experience.
Certain of the alleged miracles of the New Testament, as the healing of the sick by an act of faith, agree with what we now know to be true. Certain human ailments, mainly diseases of the mind and the nervous system, have in recent times undoubtedly yielded to an act of faith in the supreme efficacy of certain rites, or to an unwonted mental resolution. But the remedy is subjective and not objective. The virtue was not in the hem of the garment touched, but in the effort of the will of the person who touched it.
What is at variance with the rest of our knowledge in the New Testament are such things as grew up naturally in a superstitious age around the person and teachings of such a transcendent being as Jesus was the notion that he was more than human, that he had no earthly father, that he had some superhuman control over the forces of Nature, that he rose from the dead, that his death bore some mysterious relation to the sins of the world, etc. When a man talks about the value and importance of the ethics of Christianity—of charity, of mercy, of justice, of gentleness, of purity, or righteousness, or of what the world has in all ages taught to be highest and best—we can understand him; he speaks the language of truth and soberness. When he says, with Marcus Aurelius, that there is but one thing of real value—"to cultivate truth and justice, and live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men"; or when he says with Peregrinus that "the wise man will not sin, though both gods and men should overlook the deed; for it is not through the fear of punishment or of shame that he abstains from sin: it is from the desire and obligation of what is just and good"; or when he says with Micah, "And what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" or when he says with Solomon that "the fear of the Lord is to hate evil"; or with Jeremiah, "He judged the cause of the poor and needy—was not this to know me? saith the Lord"; or when he says with St. James, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world," he gives utterance to sentiments that appeal to the best there is in every man, and that agree with the highest wisdom of all ages and races. Science can understand it and verify it.
But when he talks to us about Jesus in the language of the evangelical churches—about the atonement, original sin, sanctification, saving grace, etc.—he simply uses a jargon that may mean something to him, but can mean nothing at all to an outsider. He states things as facts which have no ground either in reason or experience; they belong to a world apart, which neither the rest of our knowledge nor our natural faculties of reason and observation can put us in communication with. He might just as well talk about the elixir of life or of the philosopher's stone. The traditional theology has undoubtedly proved itself a good working hypothesis with crude and half-developed minds, but upon what thoughtful and cultivated person does it now make an impression? No race has been lifted out of barbarism without the aid of supernatural machinery. Once lifted out, how prone we are to discredit the machinery! We have no further use for it. We have outgrown it. But the mass of mankind are slow to outgrow it. To the mass of mankind the miraculous element of Christianity still seems vital and of first importance. Discredit that, and you have discredited religion itself in their eyes. But not so with the philosopher, or with the man who is bent on seeing and knowing things exactly as they are.
I think it is in accordance with the rest of our knowledge that Christianity could not have made its way in the world, its superior ethical and moral system could not have gained the ascendency, without the cloud of myths in which they came enveloped. What a seal of authentication is put upon it by the myth of the resurrection of Jesus! How this fact stuns and overwhelms the ordinary mind! Was it Talleyrand who replied to some enthusiast who proposed to start a new religion, that he advised him to begin by getting himself crucified, and to rise again on the third day? As a new cult founded upon reason alone, or as a natural religion alone, Christianity could not have coped with the supernatural religions that then possessed the world. Men's minds were not prepared for it, and it is probably equally true that the mass of mankind are not yet prepared for a religion based upon natural knowledge alone. But the time is surely coming, and natural science is to be the chief instrument in bringing it about. The religious sense of man is less and less dependent upon thaumaturgical aids. It is beginning to hear God in the still small voice; not in the tempest, or in the earthquake, or the fire; not in the marvelous, the extraordinary, the irrational, but in the quiet and familiar facts of Nature and of life. The vulgar mind asks for a sign, a wonder; but science has no sign, no wonder to show. It points to the simplest fact. Its relation toward the old theology is like that of Elisha toward Naaman. When Naaman came to the prophet to be cured of his leprosy, he expected Elisha to do some wonderful thing, some miracle. "Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper." Instead of which the prophet simply told him to go and wash seven times in the Jordan and be clean. "My father," said his servant to the indignant Naaman, "if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?"
The leprosy of the miraculous which taints men's minds is to be got rid of in the same way: wash and be clean in the current of the sweet-flowing Nature that is always near at hand, and that is always and everywhere the same.