As poets the priesthood would have been justified; their deities, celestial and otherwise, with all their retinue and appliances, being more or less legitimate symbols and personifications of the aspects of Nature and the phases of the human soul. The priests, however, or those among them who were mechanics and not poets, claimed objective validity for their conceptions, and tried to base upon external evidence that which sprang from the innermost need and nature of man. It is against this objective rendering of the emotions—this thrusting into the region of fact and positive knowledge, of conceptions essentially ideal and poetic—that science, consciously or unconsciously, wages war. Religious feeling is as much a verity as any other part of human consciousness; and against it, on its subjective side, the waves of science beat in vain. But when, manipulated by the constructive imagination, mixed with imperfect or inaccurate historic data, and moulded by misapplied logic, this feeling traverses our knowledge of Nature, Science, as in duty bound, stands as a hostile power in its path. It is against the mythologic scenery, if I may use the term, rather than against the life and substance of religion, that Science enters her protest. Sooner or later among thinking people, that scenery will be taken for what it is worth—as an effort on the part of man to bring the mystery of life and Nature within the range of his capacities; as a temporary and essentially fluxional rendering in terms of knowledge of that which transcends all knowledge, and admits only of ideal approach.
The signs of the times point in this direction. It is, for example, the obvious aim of Mr. Matthew Arnold to protect, amid the wreck of dogma, the poetic basis of religion. And it is to be remembered that under the circumstances poetry may be the purest accessible truth. In other influential quarters a similar spirit is at work. In a remarkable article published by Prof. Knight, of St. Andrews, in the September number of the Nineteenth Century, amid other free utterances, the following is to be found:
These are all bold words to be spoken before the moral philosophy class of a Scotch university, while those I have underlined show a remarkable freedom of dealing with the sacred text. They repeat in fuller language what I ventured to utter four years ago regarding the book
- Prof. Knight will have to reckon with the English Marriage Service, one of whose collects begins very naively thus: "O God, who by thy mighty power hast made all things of nothing."