Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/June 1886/Evolution Bounded by Theology

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JUNE, 1886.



UNDER the title of "Evolution and Theology," Dr. Lyman Abbott, in the December number of the "Andover Review," undertakes to indicate certain doctrines to which the philosophy of evolution will have to adapt itself, under penalty of being brought to naught. These doctrines, he seems to consider, lend themselves in an especial manner to vigorous and effective pulpit treatment; and his advice to the clergy is to insist as powerfully as possible upon these, and to "leave severely alone doubtful interpretations of the third chapter of Genesis, and doubtful discussions respecting the origin of the race." In other words, the difficulties raised by science in regard to the Biblical account of creation are to be quietly ignored, while all possible use is to be made for purposes of edification of such doctrines as appeal most powerfully to the religious emotions. One may agree with the writer that it is not well to spend time upon "doubtful interpretations," and yet hold that it would not be useless to inquire whether a narrative accepted by thousands as historically true has any just claim to be so regarded. A certain passage in Homer might be considered by critics as hopelessly "corrupt"; but the fact of our giving up the effort to interpret it would not stand in the way of our forming an opinion as to whether the Homeric tale of Troy was to be accepted as sober history. What simple-minded people want to know, in regard to the early chapters of Genesis, is whether or not they are true, and this issue can not be evaded by any talk about "doubtful interpretations." What is meant, after all, by "doubtful interpretations"? Is it meant that it is impossible to put any certain interpretation upon the chapters in question? That difficulty was not felt in former times, when days counted as days, and the geological record was as yet unread. There is, however, probably no use in pressing this point further. Dr. Abbott simply formulates a policy—the policy of those who know enough and have reflected sufficiently to understand that the recent work of science calls for some readjustment of ancient opinions even in theological matters, but who would prefer not to ascertain too precisely what the amount of that necessary readjustment is. There are others, of course, who make no terms with the scientific enemy, and persist in holding all declarations of Scripture as equally challenging and commanding the most submissive acceptance. Thus Mr. Moody, not long ago, desiring to flout the skeptics with an extreme example, declared his firm belief in the historical truth of the narrative of Jonah! The doctrine of evolution does not trouble Mr. Moody in the least. He takes the Bible as he finds it, disdaining all criticism that does not start from the assumption of its infallibility. The position of Dr. Lyman Abbott is different: evolution troubles him just to this extent, that he would apparently like to chain it to three theological cannon-balls, and then let it roam about with whatever ease and freedom might be possible to it under the circumstances.

It becomes a question, therefore, whether the proposed limitations of the doctrine of evolution, or rather of philosophy in general, can be accepted without sacrifice of the supreme interests of truth. The latter—truth in the widest sense—is and must be the ultimate standard. However valuable or important a system of thought may be in the eyes of its adherents, it can not safely be made a standard by which to test other doctrines: these may always claim a free and fair trial apart from all presumptions created by the credit attached to established opinions. Once make any system the supreme arbiter, and an intellectual tyranny has been created, the ultimate effects of which can not fail to be disastrous. The world has seen such tyrannies in the past; and, unhappily, is not rid of them in the present. The Romish Church is such a tyranny, setting itself up, as it does, as the supreme arbiter of truth. The Westminster Confession is the symbol of another tyranny of an essentially similar character. Could certain persons to-day have their way, a kind of composite evangelical doctrine would have its place in public-school instruction, and would thus be created into a tyranny over the community at large. "Ye know not what mind ye are of," was said by the founder of Christianity to some of the more zealous of his disciples; and the remark might well be addressed to-day to those who are trying to gain for their private beliefs the authority and support of the state. Could they have their way, the time would undoubtedly come when they would rue it.

Before proceeding to define the doctrines by which he would propose to check the hypothesis of evolution, Dr. Abbott assigns to the scientist and the theologian the fields in which they are respectively permitted to. work, and describes their respective methods of operation. "The scientist," he tells us, "has external Nature for his field, and observation for his instrument of acquisition; the theologian has the human mind for his field, and consciousness for the instrument of his observation." This seems to me, I must confess, a very singular utterance. In the first place, why should the scientist be said to have an "instrument of acquisition" namely, observation, and theology only an instrument of observation? In what sense can consciousness be said to be an "instrument of observation"? And if it is an instrument at all, how is it that its use is confined to the theologians? No doubt the theologian requires consciousness in order to observe, but so, I fancy, does everybody else. These objections, however, tend only to show that Dr. Abbott has used some rather crude and ill-considered expressions; but when we pass to his dictum that natural science has to do only with external Nature, and not with the human mind—the latter falling within the exclusive domain of theology—a stronger protest becomes necessary. The word "natural" here prefixed to science seems almost as if it were intended to smooth the way for the acceptance of a larger doctrine than the writer cared to put expressly forward. What many would like to think is that science—human science—has nothing to do with mind. Dr. Abbott does not go as far as this: he only says "natural science," meaning, doubtless, in his own mind, physical science; but those who want to hold the wider proposition will either overlook the word "natural" altogether, or will interpret it as opposed to "spiritual." The real question is, Does science—such science as man can construct by the aid of his natural faculties—throw any light on mind? If it does, then we are not left entirely to theology to interpret mind for us. If it does not, and if theology does, then let us place ourselves in the hands of theology; for assuredly the subject is one on which we want all the light we can get. The real fact is, that science is pushing its researches into mind with no less vigor than into material things; and in the face of such works as those of Bain, Spencer, Maudsley, Taine, Wundt, and many others, it sounds very odd to find a well-known and able writer claiming the whole field for theology.

To proceed, however, the first restriction which the evolution philosophy is called upon to observe is expressed in the proposition that "we are the children of God." "We"—who? The whole human family, it must be presumed, from the highest types of European and American civilization to the most degraded savages that walk the earth. This, we are told, is more than a revealed doctrine; it is the verdict of "the universal consciousness." If so, why put in a caveat that evolution must not go counter to it? Surely, if the very consciousness of the evolutionists themselves, in common with that of the masses of mankind, bears witness to this doctrine, it might be regarded as reasonably secure against attack from any quarter. Yet evidently Dr. Abbott, in spite of the sweeping character of his affirmation, has doubts in regard to what the evolution philosophy may do or attempt to do in the premises. How is this contradiction to be explained? The explanation, as we conceive, lies here: There are two aspects of the doctrine to which the reverend doctor refers—one the purely religious, the other what we may call the historico-theological. In regard to the first of these he feels, and, as we hold, is justified in feeling, unbounded certainty; in regard to the second, he does not feel so certain, and yet he can not help regarding it as essential to the integrity of the first. It is the latter to which he fears the solvent of evolution may be, if it has not already been, applied with disintegrating effect.

Let us explain this further. The statement that we are the children of God, in so far as it is an affirmation of consciousness, can only mean that we feel related to the highest object or ideal that our minds can frame. We may here make a new application of the poet's words:

"'Tis fife whereof our nerves are scant—
O life, not death, for which we pant;
More life and fuller that I want."

The "fuller life," for which we all, at one moment or another, pant, is that which comes of subjection to the higher law. We feel that evil in our nature bounds and hampers us on every side; that through it our lives are rendered poor and incomplete. This thirst for a higher, fuller life, is as far removed as possible from mere self-worship, or any kind of moral dilettanteism; seeing that what we seek is not an addition to our individual forces for individual purposes, no mere higher form of culture, but rather the perfecting of our nature through conscious relation with that which transcends and yet embraces it. "We grow in elevation and nobleness of nature just in proportion as we merge our individual life and happiness in the happiness and life of others." These words of Dr. Caird's ("Scotch Sermons," page 36) contain, as we think, in germ, the whole philosophy of religion. Manifestly, it is impossible to conceive that evolution, or anything else, should ever destroy the forward and upward-reaching tendencies of human nature, or, in other words, affect, in its religious aspect, the affirmation that "we are children of God." Even those—and in the present day they are many—who through fear of being misunderstood might refrain from using these precise words, would still be prepared to understand in them the substantial and essentially religious truth of man's dependence on and affinity with a higher unity than that of his individual organism.

It is otherwise, however, with the same affirmation in its historico-theological aspect. The doctrine of evolution can only deal with facts, with these it does deal. If authentic history can show that the human race is descended—by procreation, as Dr. Abbott says—from God, in the same way as the Romans claimed to have been descended from Æneas and his band of Trojans, well and good; evolution can have no more objection to that fact than to any other. Only in that case God would be a known term in a known series of phenomena; and such a thing, we need hardly say, is scarcely conceivable by any mind raised above the condition of barbarism. Ancient history, of course, is full of just such definite statements. Romulus had the god Mars for his father; Æneas the goddess Aphrodite for his mother, and so on ad infinitum. If Dr. Abbott means what he says about the human race in a literal sense, he should point us to the historical record; and, it is needless to say, that record should not be one lending itself to an infinity of "doubtful interpretations." Where is the record? But is it not perfectly manifest that, considered as the historical statement of what happened thousands of years ago, it is utterly impossible that the "universal consciousness" should bear witness to the procreation—the word is Dr. Abbott's—of the first man by the God of the book of Genesis? It is said to be a wise child that knows its own father; and, as to a child's being conscious who its own father is or was, the idea is simply irrational. It would seem as if Dr. Abbott, while discouraging inquiry into the meaning of the opening chapters of Genesis, desires, as far as possible, to save their credit, and so claims that consciousness confirms the account they contain, of the origin of mankind. Consciousness, however, does nothing of the kind—could not, by any possibility, do anything of the kind—and if the evolution philosophy should come into collision with the Mosaic account of man's creation, it will have to deal, not with an affirmation of the "universal consciousness," but simply with an ancient legend hardened into a dogma. It has had some experience already in dealing with such things, and need not quail at the prospect of another encounter. It is really very idle thus to try to frighten away Science from ground that it is entirely fitted to occupy. The effort irresistibly reminds one of the attempts that savages make to avert an eclipse by the vigorous beating of tom-toms. Unaffrighted by all the tom-toms of the pulpit and the theological press, modern science will press steadily forward, grasping at all facts, and reducing them, as fast as possible, to order and harmony. It is already concerning itself with the origin of mankind; and has taught us more upon that subject than all the theologies and mythologies put together. We may claim to know now that primitive man had not a very profound or very enlarged consciousness of a divine descent, and that any ideas of divinity that he possessed were not inconsistent with a lively cannibalism. But it is science that teaches us this, and not the book of Genesis, which starts man on his career with a respectable equipment of theological and industrial knowledge. Dr. Abbott may count with confidence upon a complete abstention on the part of science from any interference with the devout experiences or exercises of any human soul; but, unless he wishes to see his counsels brought to naught, he will himself refrain from any attempt to check science in its career of discovery, or prevent it from drawing such conclusions as may seem reasonable from the facts that come within its range.

The second doctrine which the evolution hypothesis is solemnly warned not to contradict is that which affirms that "mankind has sinned and come short of the glory of God." Guilt and imperfection, we are told—and, as the present writer thinks, truly—are not synonymous. "Sin is always a fall; when we sin we go down from a higher to a lower life." Now, what the evolutionist is concerned to know, is whether he is required to affirm, or at the very least to refrain from denying, that man was originally created perfect, and that, from that condition of perfection, he fell by sin, more or less in the manner described in the third chapter of Genesis. Dr. Abbott is not as distinct upon this point as might be desired. Making all allowances for his natural desire to "leave severely alone doubtful interpretations of the third chapter of Genesis, and doubtful discussions respecting the origin of the race," we might still have expected him to tell us clearly whether he holds that the first human pair were created perfect—"very good" from every point of view—and whether this is what he requires the evolutionist also to believe. The latter might, I fear, have some trouble with a doctrine of this kind; but if he is merely asked to believe that there is a radical difference between guilt and imperfection, he will not only be able to toe the mark without difficulty, but, with the aid of Mr. Spencer, he will be able to discourse somewhat pertinently on the differences between guilt and imperfection. The sense of guilt arises, he will say, when some higher law of conduct, the moral authority of which has been established in the manner described in Chapter VII of the "Data of Ethics," has been set aside under the influence of some lower but more clamorous motive. Such lapses are incidental to man's upward struggle; and in every such case he undoubtedly has the sense of a fall. The illustrations which Dr. Abbott gives of his meaning lead to the belief that he understands nothing more by guilt than the falling away from some recognized standard, some attained level, of conduct. If so, he has gone out of his way to give a very unnecessary warning to his evolutionist brother. "Every broken resolve," he says, "every high purpose lowered, every sacrifice of reverence to sensual desire, of conscience to passion, of love to greed, or ambition, or wealth, is a fall." Surely no decently-read person supposes there is anything in the evolution philosophy that conflicts with this. What the evolutionist is in doubt about is whether the story of the Fall, as embodied in Christian doctrine, is a true story—whether the first human being was all made up of high purpose, reverence, conscience, and love, and whether from that pristine condition of purity he fell, by one act of disobedience, into that condition of utter corruption described by theologians. There is no use in mincing matters or using vague language. Either Dr. Abbott summons the evolutionist to incorporate this doctrine in his philosophy, or he does not. If be does, then there will be trouble; for the evolutionist will ask for evidence that will scarcely be forthcoming. If he does not, but merely asks the evolutionist to allow in his system a place for the sense of sin, the reply of the latter will undoubtedly be: My dear sir, you are going to unnecessary trouble in this matter; for the school to which I belong not only recognizes the fact to which you refer, but may even claim to have scientifically explained it years ago.

The third test-doctrine is that of redemption. Evolution must bow to this also, or else go on its way to destruction. At first sight the condition may seem hard, but Dr. Abbott has a rare faculty for minimizing difficulties. Just as he illustrated the Fall for us by referring to the decadence of Greece, Italy, and the Southern States of the Union—the points of comparison in the latter case being "the moral utterances of Jefferson and Madison," on the one hand, and those of the pro-slavery leaders of the period just prior to secession on the other—so, when it comes to expounding redemption, he exhibits it to us in the action of a higher personality upon a lower: that, for example, of father, mother, or teacher upon the wayward character of a child. It is true that he adds: "No soul, and so no aggregation of souls, can climb up to God; he stoops down and lifts us up to himself." But this, again, is manifestly the language of devotion. How can science take any cognizance of such terms? Professor Huxley spoke not irreverently, but simply as a man of common sense, when, in his recent controversy with Mr. Gladstone, he observed that he could not match any detail of the nebular hypothesis with the scriptural statement that "the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters." To throw such declarations at the man of science, and ask him what he makes of them, is eminently unreasonable. They may and do find an echo in the religious nature; but they do not lend themselves to any kind of scientific appraisement. The business of science, it can not be too often repeated, is not to force its way into men's hearts, and lay a ruthless hand upon the altar of the religious life. It is none of its business to apply rule or plummet, or any other instruments of exact determination, to the religious aspirations, or to the forms or formulas in which these express themselves. Its business is with definite, determinate facts or statements; it builds alone upon these, it concerns itself alone with these. It respects the religious life, and would willingly draw a wide precinct around it to preserve it from all undue intrusion. But, on the other hand, it claims complete independence within its own region, and will not surrender one atom of determinate fact, or forego a single one of its conclusions, because, forsooth, some one asserts that the interests of religion are involved in having the fact or the conclusion so, rather than so! Religion has to learn that it can neither make nor mold facts, nor arbitrarily control logical processes. It must learn to be self-sufficing in its own region—the region of the higher emotions—and to respect science as it would have science respect it. Then all will be well.

It is observable that Dr. Abbott is no more anxious to discuss the strict theological doctrine of redemption than he is to enter into the details of the third chapter of Genesis. He prefers to deal with the process of redemption in its most general aspects, as consisting in the action of a higher nature on a lower. Taken in this accommodated and accommodating sense it is not at all hard to believe in; and the evolutionist may well congratulate himself that a term of such special theological import, so commonly associated with the supposed efficacy of bloody sacrifices, is capable of being explained by a doctor of divinity in so natural and human a manner. It is satisfactory, also, to note that the reverend doctor does not summon the modern philosopher, on pain of intellectual confusion, to accept the Bible or any portion of it, but only such truths as are affirmed by the "universal consciousness." He mentions certain chapters of the Bible, but chiefly for the purpose of deprecating the spending of much time upon a discussion of their meaning. In spite, therefore, of an apparently aggressive tone, the learned doctor's article, when closely examined, may almost be regarded as a kind of Eirenicon. Possibly, like a very ancient scriptural character, he may have meant to say worse things than he actually succeeded in uttering. Science has its foes, who would like to hear it denounced; but it is not always easy to command the prophets. Many of them know too much, and are too sound at heart, to rail at the modern Israel.

A few words in conclusion. The evolutionist, or, as we should prefer to say, the modern scientific thinker, is not necessarily or naturally an irreligious man. Conversing, as he tries to do, with truths of deep and wide significance, and seeing, as perhaps no one not engaged on equally wide questions can see, the littleness of all individual thought and effort in comparison with the vast operations of Nature and the limitless record of human action in general, he is not prone either to set his own personality up as an object of worship, or voluntarily to cage himself in a narrow materialistic philosophy. What he sees and feels at every moment is, that the universe outruns him on every side, and that he can only be baffled and beaten in any attempt to do more than take due note of the succession of phenomena. It is a duty with him, however, to limit his affirmations to the exact facts he has observed. To go beyond them would be to him as distinctly a sin as to others it would be an act of piety. This is why he can not join in many of the devout phrases by which others ease their hearts. It is not that his heart does not at times require easing too, or that these phrases have not, considered in themselves and in their associations, a decided efficacy for that purpose, but simply that he does not himself feel authorized to make the affirmations which the phrases either make or imply. The average member of society has probably little idea of the emotional sacrifices which the philosopher makes in order to preserve his intellectual integrity, and to keep inviolate for others truths which he believes they will one day, to their great advantage, recognize. Were he alone concerned, he might—in most cases probably would—yield to the force of surrounding opinion and social practice; but a secret instinct tells him that he is the conservator of that which he has no right to sacrifice, or even to compromise, in the interest of his personal convenience or comfort. Such a man may, as I conceive, worship the Unknown God with as true a devotion as has ever been shown at the shrine of any of the named divinities of the human race. He may lack a liturgy and articles of belief; but he does not mourn the absence of these, finding his mind all the freer to turn its gaze ever to the pole-star of truth, and his heart the more open to every good impulse and to all the best teachings of the great world-drama that enacts itself before his eyes. Such a man can afford to be misunderstood, not so much because of his confident appeal to the future, as because of the present sustaining power of a loyal submission to the truth. When theologians, even such amiable ones as Dr. Lyman Abbott, undertake to tell him what he must incorporate into his system of thought, or what venerable doctrines he must bow to in passing, he says to himself, in the language of Socrates, "Whither the sea-breeze of reason carries us, thither must our course be bent." And so, in spite of all pulpit denunciation, and in spite of all the pleading, special and general, of those who would keep humanity fettered to the doctrines of the past, modern thought keeps on its way, seeing, believing, harmonizing, hoping, and looking to be justified some day of its children.