Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/May 1884/Christian Agnosticism

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By the Rev. Canon CURTEIS.

THE title at the head of this article may appear to some a contradiction in terms. But it is not really so. And no religious man need shrink from saying: "I am a Christian agnostic. I hold firmly by the doctrine of St. Paul, who exclaims, in sheer despair of fathoming the unfathomable, 'O the depth of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and inscrutable his ways!' I say, with Job and all the great prophets of the Old Testament, ’Canst thou by searching find out God?' And I bow to the authority of Christ, who tells me, 'No man hath seen God at any time'; 'God is a Spirit'; 'Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.' And, in so holding, I am in full accord with the Church. I say with her, 'We know Thee now by faith'; 'The Father is incomprehensible (im-mensus)'; 'There is but one God, eternal, incorporeal, indivisible, beyond reach of suffering, infinite'—in short, a profound and inscrutable Being. Nor do I find that Catholic theology, for 1800 years, has ever swerved from a clear and outspoken confession of this agnosticism. So early as the second century, we read in Justin Martyr, 'Can a man know God, as he knows arithmetic or astronomy? Assuredly not.'[1] Irenaeus, in the same century, repeatedly speaks of God as 'indefinable, incomprehensible, invisible.'[2] That bold thinker in the third century, Clement of Alexandria, declares (with Mr. Spencer) that the process of theology is, with regard to its doctrine of God, negative and agnostic, always 'setting forth what God is not, rather than what he is.'[3] All the great fathers of the fourth century echo the same statement. St. Augustine is strong on the point. John of Damascus, the greatest theologian of the East, says bluntly, 'It is impossible for the lower nature to know the higher.'[4] Indeed, it would be a mere waste of time to adduce any more of the great Catholic theologians by name. They are all 'agnostics' to a man. And M. Emile Bumouf is quite right when he says, 'Les docteurs Chrétiens sont unanimes à déclarer que leur dieu est caché et incompréhensible, qu'il est plein de mystères, qu'il est l'objet de la foi et non pas de la raison.'"[5]

Thus there is nothing new under the sun, not even in the highest flights of modern philosophy; and no man, with all the fathers of the Church at his back, need hesitate to say, "I am a Christian agnostic." Yet all who concur in this will, I am sure, warmly welcome a powerful auxiliary like Mr. Herbert Spencer, if only he remain true to the principles so lucidly set forth in the last number of this review ("Popular Science Monthly," January, 1884). For although he might not himself care to qualify his philosophy by the adjective "Christian," fearing thereby to limit-as a philosopher is bound not to do—his perfect freedom of speculation, still his guidance is none the less valuable to those who are approaching the same subject from a different side. The Christian, indeed, is, of all men, the most absolutely bound-over to be truthful. When, therefore, any great leader of thought arises, whether in the higher or the lower departments of human inquiry, the liegeman of a "God of truth" must needs feel such reverence as Dante expressed for Aristotle, "the great master of them that know"; and will borrow from the other twin luminary of the mediæval Church, St. Augustine, that most apt of all mottoes for a really "Catholic" philosopher, "The Christian claims as his Master's own possession every broken fragment of truth, wherever it may be found." In the firm conviction, then, that in Mr. Spencer's works much truth—not in detached fragments merely, but in large, coherent masses—is to be found, the present writer hopes to show how little there is to repudiate, how much to accept and to be sincerely grateful for, in his masterly speculations:

1. First of all, Mr. Spencer led us in his interesting article[6] to take a retrospective view of religion, in its origin and history. Naturally, he does not approach the question in the old-fashioned way. His purpose is not dogmatic, but analytic. That lovely Haggada, therefore, or religious story whereby, for babes and philosophers alike, the wonderful genius which constructed the Jewish Scriptures has projected, once for all, upon a plane surface (as it were) a picture of the origin of all things—this our man of science properly passes by; and he proceeds to inquire how precisely the beginnings of things, and especially of religion, may be conceived. And since, in these days, we have all of us "evolution" upon the brain, it was not to be expected that any other line of thought should be attempted. Indeed, it may be fairly conceded that, amid our modern scientific environment, no other method of inquiry is just at present possible. We belong to our own age. And while other ages have taken grand truths en bloc and have deftly hammered them out into finer shapes for practical use, the special delight and the crowning glory of our own age consist rather in a power of tracking things backward. Hence a hundred books of (so-called) "origins" issue annually from the press. Of course, no origin is ever really described, simply because there is no such thing in nature as "an origin." If there were, at that point all hunt upon the traces of evolution would abruptly come to an end; whereas, by the usual scientific hypothesis, evolution knows neither beginning nor end. By "origins," therefore, can only be meant arbitrary points a little way back, marked (as children or jockeys set up a starting-post) for commencing the inquiry. Indeed, it is very easy to imagine some imperturbable savage—say, a Zooloo of Natal or an English school-boy—asking the most reprehensible questions as to what happened before the "origin" began. Such a critic would be sure to express a languid wonder, for instance, as to how the primeval star-mist got there; or he would casually inquire whence the antediluvian thunder-bolt, which introduced vegetable life upon this globe, procured its vegetation; or he would ask why Mr. Spencer's aboriginal divine, roused from his post-prandial nightmare, should have selected a "ghost," out of the confused kaleidoscope of his dreams, as the recipient of divine honors. Nay, as was long ago suggested by a much more serious thinker in reply to a similar theory: "To stop there is to see but the surface of things; for it still remains to ask how mankind have effected this transformation of a metaphor (or a dream) into a god, and what mysterious force has pushed them into making the transition.... In order to change any sensuous impression into a god, there must have previously existed the idea of a god."[7] Yes, clearly the latent idea must have been, in some way, already ingrained in human nature, so that it only needed (as Plato would say) an awakening from its hibernation; else why should human dreams produce a "religion" and bestial dreams produce none? The question, therefore, is not fully answered by Mr. Spencer's entertaining speculation, any more than the miracle (as Dr. Btichner all but calls it) of "hereditary gout" is explained by the jubilant paean of the materialist, "Give me but matter and force, and all obscurities instantly vanish away!"[8] For no reasonable man, who accepts the modern doctrine of the eternity and identity of energy, can entertain a doubt that religion—the most powerful human stimulant we know of—must have pre-existed somehow in the bosom of the unknown, though it only revealed itself at a certain fitting stage in the development of the world. And when we have reached this confession, have we not simply found our way back to that general truth which the Church has couched in every sort of parable and symbol, viz., that (the "how" and the "when" being left for history to unravel) religious ideas, especially in their most fruitful and catholic form, are a gift, an unfolding, a revelation from the bosom of the unknown God?

2. There are, however, far more serious and more practical subjects for reflection suggested by Mr. Spencer's paper, than any which relate to the past. Let by-gones be by-gones! Our contemporaries are an impatient generation, and are very apt to consign to their mental waste-paper basket anything which they are pleased to condemn as "ancient history." What, then, has Mr. Spencer to tell us about the present state of religion? and what hopes does he unfold to us as we gaze, under his direction, into the future?

It is truly disappointing to be obliged to say of so devoted a student and so patient a thinker (1), that he has failed to work his subject out, and (2) that he has fallen into a passion.[9] It would be well worth while to make these two not unfriendly charges, if only they should succeed in inducing this able writer to give to the world some further product of his thinking on the strangely fascinating subject of religion. For the truth is that, when Mr. Bradlaugh and others proclaim, "I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God,"[10] they almost put themselves out of court at once by parading their inherent defect of sympathy with ordinary mental conditions. And when, in higher social grades. Dr. Congreve and the Positivists openly "substitute Humanity for God,"[11] and refuse the transforming adoration of the heart to any conception which is not level to the bare positive understanding, they also—with all their eloquence and persuasive amiability—"charm" their contemporaries utterly in vain. As modern England will never again become papal and mediæval, so (it may be safely predicted) modern England will never become atheist or positivist. Our countrymen are in too healthy and vigorous a mental condition to impale themselves on either horn of this uncongenial dilemma. But they may, and it is to be hoped they will, surrender themselves to the far higher and more scientific teaching of men like Mr. Spencer; and will learn from them to think out to just and practical conclusions the deeply interesting—and to some minds the quite absorbing—question of religion.

But then—with all respect be it said—Mr. Spencer must really help us to think further on than he has yet done; or he will find the Christian clergy (whom he is under temptation to despise) will be beforehand with him. He has most ably "purified" for us our idea of God; he has pruned away all kinds of anthropomorphic accretions; he has dressed up and ridiculed afresh the Guy Fawkes crudities of by-gone times, which he apparently "sees no reason should ever be forgot"; he has reminded the country parsons of a good many scientific facts, which they read, it is true, in every book and review from Monday till Saturday and then so provokingly forget on Sundays; and he has schooled them into the reflection that a Power present in innumerable worlds hardly needs our flattery, or indeed any kind of service from us at all. But then all this is abundantly done already by the steady reading, from every lectern throughout the land, of those grand old prophets and apostles of the higher religious thought, who perpetually harp upon this same string. "God," they reiterate, "is not a man," that he should lie or repent; "Bring no more vain oblations"; "The sacrifices of God are a troubled spirit"; "Thou thoughtest wickedly that I am such a one as thyself"; "God dwelleth not in temples made with hands, neither is worshiped with men's hands, as though he needed anything." Nay, the present writer—who probably sits under a great many more sermons in the course of the year than Mr. Spencer does—is firmly persuaded that every curate in the Church of England and every Nonconformist minister are perfectly aware of these great truths and on suitable occasions preach them; and that what they want to be taught is something beyond all this A B C and all this negation—viz., what are the fundamental conceptions on which they may securely build up, not their philosophical negations, but their popular assertions about religion. For a religion of mere negations is as good as no religion at all. It seems hardly worth while to go down Sunday after Sunday to St. George's Hall, or to any other hall, simply to be told that Heaven has nothing whatever to say to us. We can not believe that we are physically so well cared for as we are—naturally selected, evolved, provided with every possible adaptation to our material environment, and given the prize at last as "the fittest of all possible beings to survive"—and then are left utterly in the lurch as regards all our higher wants. No, our instinct revolts against such a supposition; and we crave to know on what grounds something can be said, as well as on what grounds almost everything can be denied.

3. Now, Mr. Spencer could help us in this quest, if he would. His analysis, in "First Principles," of our religious conceptions shows what he could do. He there—while carefully warning us that all our knowledge is merely relative, and that our reasoning faculties do not present to us truth as it is, but only as it is reflected on the mirror of our mind—places nevertheless such confidence in those faculties that he allows them, in Buddhist-fashion, to strip away feature after feature, as it were, from our religious conception of God, and to reduce it to a grim skeleton labeled "Everlasting Force." But why "Force" only? To begin with, surely this also is a "conception." It is engendered by a multitude of observations blending into a higher unity and taking at last a definite shape. And the only sanction it has to rest upon is, not (ex hypothesi) any certainty or absolute truth in human logic, but simply an ineradicable faith that, to us at any rate, the notions of "permanence" and "force" sufficiently represent though they may not actually be, the truth. We seem, then, already to have made the grand transition from reasoning to conceiving, from destruction to construction, from restless analysis to quiet synthesis, and from logic to belief that the great Unknown is, in one word, Power—"an infinite and eternal energy."

4. But just as we draw from the stores of our own consciousness this idea of "Power," of force, of muscular or mental energy, precisely in the same way we are justified in drawing the idea of "purpose" in the direction of that energy. In fact, we can not anyhow conceive of force without "direction" of some kind; and our instincts imperatively demand of us, when we think of force in the highest and sublimest way we can, that we impregnate that idea with another product of our plastic imagination, and conceive it as efficiently directed to some worthy end—in short, as power and wisdom combined. This may be, and undoubtedly is, quite as human and relative and provisional a conception as that of a pure blind, unguided Force would be. But while the mind shrinks with unmitigated horror from the notion of "an infinite and eternal Energy," loose as it were in the universe, without any rational purpose or aim, but wielding portentous cosmic forces at hap-hazard, as a madman or a rogue-elephant might do, the mind rests and is satisfied when it can once feel assured that all is guided and has perfect efficiency for (what we can only call) some worthy "design." The word is, of course, utterly inadequate when things of such a scale are in question. But can Mr. Spencer or any one else deny that, whatever sanction the human and relative conception of "power" draws from the inner certainties of our own sensations, that same, or a still higher, sanction can also be claimed for the conception of an infinite and eternal "Wisdom"? And if so, it appears that, if the agnostic lines which had reached the one conception were prolonged a little further, they would also reach the other; and that so the magnificent idea would be recovered for mankind of an Intelligent Being, with whom our infinitesimal yet kindred minds can enter into relations, and the wonder of whose works we can—as surely men of science above all others do—appreciate and assimilate as a kind of nutriment to ourselves.

6. But even then the imperative instinct which demanded the integration of Nature's observed forces into a conception of Infinite Power, and which was irresistibly borne on to add wisdom also to that Power—even then it is not pacified. It clamors for one more quality; and then it will be still. Relative, human, provisional—call it what you will—nevertheless this third and complementary conception will no more take a denial, will no more obey a frown and waive its right to rush into the inevitable combination, than matter will politely waive its chemical affinities. As the human mind is stupefied with terror at the bare idea of swift and gigantic energy abroad in the universe without purpose or intelligence (as we inadequately say) to guide it, so assuredly the human heart stands still in palsied horror at the frightful thought of "an infinite and eternal force," guided indeed by an infinite cunning, but checked by no sort of goodness, mercy, or love. In short, no authority on earth—not even that of all the philosophers and scientists and theologians that have ever lived—could impose upon any man, who thought Mr. Herbert Spencer's "First Principles" out to their ultimate conclusion, the portentous belief in an eternal, almighty, and omniscient Devil. And therefore to add goodness to the other two factors of power and wisdom, which we are compelled by the constitution of our nature to attribute to the Great Unknown, is pardonable because inevitable. But if so, it seems that agnosticism—if allowed to develop freely on its own lines, without artificial hindrance—must needs become a "Christian agnosticism." And it only remains to ask, why in the world should not such an agnostic "go to church," fall in with the religious symbolism in ordinary use, and contribute his moral aid to those who have taken service under the Christian name on purpose to purify gross and carnal eyes, till they become aware of the Great Unknown behind the veil, and so come to relatively know what absolutely passes knowledge?

6. There is only one obstacle in the way; and that is of so unworthy a character that it passes comprehension how men of cultivation can allow it a moment's influence upon their conduct. The objection referred to has never been more clearly expressed than by one whom we all delight to honor and to listen to, Professor Tyndall. He wrote as follows in the pages of this Review a few years ago (November, 1878): "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." But how, in the name of common sense and charity, is religion—that special provision for bringing strength to the feeble-minded, elevation to the lowly, and wisdom to the ignorant—to be brought home to all mankind, without the use of even coarse symbolism, which is as "relative" to the masses for whom it is intended as scientific conceptions are to philosophers? In both cases the realities behind are most imperfectly represented; and a higher intelligence, if it were not loving as well as intelligent, would certainly display impatience with Professor Tyndall's own kindly effort a few pages further on, where he says, "How are we to figure this molecular motion? Suppose the leaves to be shaken from a birch-tree; and, to fix the idea, suppose each leaf to repel and attract," and so on. Is it not clear that the Professor is here doing the very same thing, in order to bring science home (all honor to him!) to the unlearned, which he refuses to the ministers of religion when they try to bring home the Gospel to the poor? How can such subtile ideas, such far-reaching thoughts, as those of theology be brought home to the mass of mankind without the boldest use of symbol and of figured speech? How can that most precious result of Christianity, a unity of general conceptions about mankind and about the Great Unknown, be secured without a symbolism of the very broadest and most striking kind? Panoramas can not be painted with stippling-brushes. Nor, indeed, does any sort of painter aim to compete with the bald truthfulness of photography. He does not imitate—he merely hints. He throws out things φωνᾶντα συνετοῖσιν. He summons the imagination of the spectators themselves to his aid and awakens their finer susceptibilities. And by this means a "picture," which is in itself the most unreal of all unrealities, becomes in skillful hands a fruitful reality for good, perhaps, to a hundred generations.

If, then, any scientific man does not for himself need rituals and symbols, still let him remember how invaluable an aid these things are to the mass of mankind. Let him reflect how the purest and loftiest ideas of the Eternal lie enshrined within every form of Christian adoration, and how the most touching memories speak in every Christian sacrament. Is it nothing, too, to be brought in contact with the boundless gentleness and tolerance of Christ; to hear such words as "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it," and "He that is not against us is on our side"? Is it nothing to feel the sympathy of such a devoted benefactor of Europe as St. Paul, and to accept his judgment that "he who regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it"? Nay, is it nothing to bow the knee in acknowledged brotherhood beside the simple and the lowly; to submit to learn from them, as we all learn from our children in the nursery; and to feel ourselves, in spite of our divergent views and notions, in the attitude of common adoration before the Great Unknown? Better this, surely, by far than to cover with philosophic scorn ministrants whose days are given to soothing every form of human distress, amid whose simplest teaching can always be detected in undertone the deep thoughts of Hebrew prophets and apostles, and to despise whom is to crown once more, with paper or with thorns, the meek head of Christ.Nineteenth Century.

  1. "Trypho,"sec. 3.
  2. iv, 34, 6, etc.
  3. "Strom.," v, H.
  4. "De fide," i, 12.
  5. "Science des Religions," p. 15. (Christian doctors are unanimous in declaring that their God is hidden and incomprehensible, that he is full of mystery, that he is the object of faith and not of reason.)
  6. "Religious Retrospect and Prospect," "Popular Science Monthly," January, 1884.
  7. Burnouf, p. 29.
  8. Büchner, "Yie et Lumière" (French translation), p. 315.
  9. "First Principles," p. 115.
  10. "Plea for Atheism," p. 4.
  11. "Positivist Prayer-book."