Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/June 1890/The Affirmative Side of Agnosticism

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1154283Popular Science Monthly Volume 37 June 1890 — The Affirmative Side of Agnosticism1890James A. Skilton




IN the sacred literature of the Christian Church a word appears that to its founder and to his immediate followers evidently had a deep significance, the nature of which was at least partially concealed from his later followers, and is still concealed from those of the present day, through admitted mistranslation.

Standing on Mars' Hill and speaking to the men of Athens, Paul affirmed that in all things they were "too God-fearing."[1] Whereupon he proceeded to declare and make known unto them the God whom they worshiped as the Unknown or Agnostic God. In so doing he spoke of a God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who made the world and all things therein; who dwelt not in temples made with hands; who needed nothing, seeing he was the giver of life, breath, and all things; who had made of one blood all nations of men; and who had determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation. He declared that they should seek the Lord if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he was constantly at hand, and the one in whom they lived and moved and had their being. He closed with a strongly put antithesis in which, without declaring divine condemnation of their agnosticism, which he said God "winked at," and they might therefore tolerate, he urged them to obey the command of God—"metanoein"—to practice metanosticism. This word has been translated to mean "repent." It is hardly sufficient to say that that translation is etymologically inadequate; the history of the Christian Church also, for eighteen centuries, proves it to be practically so. Paul evidently found in the word "metanoein" the open door of a temple in which a God-fearing worship might be exchanged for a God-loving worship. The history of his own life shows that his personal conversion was a metanostic process through which a defective external sight was exchanged for a clear insight, revealed to him as with a lightning-flash at midnight, wherein he instantly saw "the world and all things therein" in an entirely new aspect.

The question, then, indirectly presented for the consideration of the entire Christian Church, in the following correspondence, is, Whether it should adopt the word actually used by Paul, with its large meaning, either alone, as a step forward, and to restore to the sacred record and to the working power of the Church the true meaning of the word used by Paul, but first used by the one whom he preached and followed, as the central and supreme word in his system of salvation for the world and for mankind; or, cooperatively with science and philosophy, for the purpose of securing their powerful aid for its work in the world?


New York, November 20, 1889.

Herbert Spencer, Esq.

Dear Sir: I beg the privilege of presenting hereby, for your consideration and determination, a question of seemingly universal importance, that has arisen in the course of our work in the Brooklyn Ethical Association.

As far as possible I have sought to so present it as to limit your labors therein to yea, yea, or nay, nay.

The question relates to the selection and adoption of words for general use in the new philosophy, and as substitutes for the words agnostic and agnosticism, to express the affirmative side of the agnostic conception.

As a result of our experience of nearly two years in attempting to popularize evolution views, we find that just there our greatest obstacle is to be found, and our time and labor are most occupied and consumed, and increasingly so as we approach the popular mass.

The object of this communication is to propose as such affirmative substitutes the words metagnosticism and metagnostic, or metanosticism and metanostic, and to ask therefor your own approval and also that of Prof. Huxley—in concert, if possible.

My own view is that the new or substitute words involve no surrender or concession, but, on the contrary, if adopted would mark an advance in the nomenclature of the agnostic philosophy.

The accompanying statement was made by me as part of the discussion following the reading of the essay of Dr. Lewis G. Janes, on The Scope and Principles of the Evolution Philosophy, the first of the current series of the Brooklyn Ethical Association, on the evening of October 13, 1889, and it will explain itself.

I also hand you herewith a list of words and their definitions, derived or derivable from the Greek verbs gignoskein and noein, in composition with the preposition meta, the imperative form of which was used, according to the Greek Testament, by John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, in that passage in which they are made in the Douay Bible to say, "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," following the Latin Vulgate; and in King James's and later English versions, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

These definitions of these words were prepared more than a year ago, at the special written request of Rev. Lyman Abbott, D. D., the pastor of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn; and the list is a copy of the first rough draft or study made in compliance with that request, but, for reasons unnecessary to explain here, has not yet been presented to him. For what use these definitions were intended by him I am neither authorized nor prepared to positively state. Dr. Abbott is in special charge of theology, liturgies, and ecclesiastical history, as editorial contributor, under the chief editorship of Prof. William D. Whitney, in the preparation of The Century Dictionary, which is an encyclopedic dictionary of the English language, now in course of publication by the Century Company, the first volume of which now lies before me. . .. In Volume I the words agnostic and agnosticism are defined at length, with references to Huxley, Romanes, and Cobbe, and to the source of the suggestion of the same by Prof. Huxley in the mention by St. Paul of the altar he had seen erected by the Athenians to the Unknown God.[2]

As I have previously informed you, early in his pastorship of Plymouth Church, Dr. Abbott declared his belief in the evolution philosophy, and his high sense of the value of its co-operation in the religious work of the future. He is also the editor of The Christian Union, the leading liberal religious newspaper in America. His position as such may be stated to be evangelical-liberal, or conservative-progressive, with the promise of moving faster and further, as soon as circumstances permit. Practically, things are in a ferment in all religious denominations in America at this time; or, to speak more accurately, we seem to be entering a new constructive period, and one which furnishes agnosticism and evolution their great religious opportunity.

In the statement referred to I have used the words metagnostic and metagnosticism to preserve or make parallelism in form with the words agnostic and agnosticism, to which the public eye and ear have now become accustomed, and to the better present the expressive antithesis involved therein. I am, however, fully aware that a word-form and meaning directly derived from the word metanoeite (metanoeo), which is the actual word placed in the mouth of Christ by and through the Greek original, would have certain great advantages. Prominent among them would be the ever-present evidence it would furnish that in the gospel, as actually preached by Christ and his immediate contemporaries and handed down to us, so far as we know it, the human mind was to occupy the leading place, to be elevated, and not degraded and disfranchised, as it has been by bis alleged followers for ages past. Not only in this respect, as it seems to me, would the adoption of such a word bring science and philosophy into harmony with the true religion of Christ and nature, but it would also compel the beginning of a change in organized Christianity that would eventually bring it into complete harmony with them.

Whether the best word is metagnostic, metanostic, metagnosticism, or metanosticism, or some other form derivable directly or more remotely from the root nous, mind, is to me a question of minor importance. I would select that which, on the whole, is the truest and best, for the purpose of bringing about the desired reconciliation of religious with other forms of truth, even if it were necessary to manufacture the form for the occasion; and this, it seems to me, we are at liberty to do, since, strange as it may seem, while we have in our language and in frequent use all the other words derived from the kindred Greek words, the most important words of all, and the supreme words of the religion of the English race (metanoeite and metanoia), have never, apparently, up to this time, been transferred to or adopted into the English language.

The suggestion is based upon the proposition that the words to be adopted do and shall express, cover, or include the affirmative side of the terms agnostic and agnosticism. The selection of the proper forms I leave entirely to you, in co-operation with Prof. Huxley, if you approve the suggestion and think the matter worthy your and his attention.

Certainly it must, it seems to me, be considered a desirable thing to find words of affirmative import to designate the affirmative meaning hidden under the terms in present use, since it must seemingly tend to foreclose further argument and confusion on that branch of the subject.

I inclose copies of these papers to be addressed and forwarded to Prof. Huxley, if that course meets your approval.

My own plan would be, on receipt of the approval of yourself and Prof. Huxley, to bring the matter before the public, through our Association, at one of the meetings of the series now well commenced for the season, through The Popular Science Monthly, and by other means within my present reach. I am confident that recognition in the Century Dictionary would follow, and that a great impulse would be given to the new philosophy, to what would practically be a new or reformed Christian religion, m harmony with human intelligence and progress, with the express word and thought of the founder of Christianity, and calculated to combine them in the interests of the world and the race.

Very respectfully yours, James A. Skilton.

The "list" referred to included the words meta(g)nostic, nouns and adjective, meta(g)nosticism, meta(g)noiology, and meta(g)nosis. The definitions given were made approximately parallel with the definitions of the words diagnostic, prognostic, diagnosis, prognosis, etc., as found in Webster, and need not he here presented.

Monday, November 25th.

P. S.—The foregoing letter was complete on Saturday last. On Sunday, the 24th inst., by a coincidence that seems to me not to be a mere coincidence, Dr. Abbott, without any knowledge of this correspondence or my intentions, took for his subject the sermon of Paul on Mars' Hill, for the purpose of dealing with the "new doctrine" and "new thing" involved in the "new theology" now agitating the American churches. He referred to your position and that of Prof. Huxley, quoted from your writings, and practically placed himself not only in line with agnosticism as explained by you, but so near to the position I have given him in these pages that the next step must have brought out the new word. His expressed thought implied it, and I had prepared myself to hear it, when he suddenly brought his sermon to a close. I feel myself, therefore, once more justified in my statements, and am all the more anxious to use, or rather to have you use, the present opportunity. I will ask him to print the sermon, that I may send it to you in confirmation.[3] J. A. S.


Dr. Janes having unexpectedly and without suggestion of mine used my name in connection with the term "metagnosticism," I feel compelled to make my use of it as clear as possible at once, without waiting another occasion.

The doctor chooses his words with exceeding skill and care. He says that he will endeavor, in defining philosophical agnosticism, to show that "in every department of scientific, historical, and true philosophic investigation, indeed, it is consistent and coincident with the meta-gnosticism of his friend Mr. Skilton."[4]

As so limited—to the definition of philosophical agnosticism—the statement and the subsequent showing are both entirely satisfactory. But the limitation is not so.

As adopted and used by me, the term meta-gnosticism has a much larger meaning, and has an important bearing not only upon science, history, and philosophy, but also upon and in religion, meaning the religion of our civilization, as well as the religion of evolution and the future.

The evidence is abundant that even in the domains of science and philosophy the word agnosticism does not and can not express in full the idea or system for which it stands representative. Mr. Huxley, the inventor of it, is, as we all know, in a state of constant warfare over it; and as to Mr. Spencer, it is sufficient to refer to his controversy with Frederic Harrison and his "x" as the appropriate symbol "for the religion of the Infinite Unknowable."

With both of these men—the acknowledged leaders among agnostics—and with all their followers, the trouble is that at present they are compelled to seek to accomplish the practically impossible by attempting to read a positive and affirmative meaning into a word that is and can be only indefinite and negative. And the words meta-gnosticism and meta-gnostic are proposed for the purpose of meeting precisely that difficulty, and for the reason that they are positive and affirmative.

Mr. Huxley really found the word agnostic, or its root, already in use in the Greek language, and borrowed and used it for the want of a better one, little thinking, doubtless, how important it would become. It is believed that the time has now arrived for importing another word, cognate in origin and affirmative in meaning, into our language, if it be found by competent authority to meet the requirements of the case.

In his essay entitled Retrogressive Religion, in reply to Harrison, Spencer says (p. 68, Appletons' edition):

"I might enlarge on the fact that, though the name Agnosticism fitly expresses the confessed inability to know or conceive the nature of the Power manifested through phenomena, it fails to indicate the confessed ability to recognize the existence of that Power as of all things the most certain. I might make clear the contrast between that Comtean Agnosticism which says that 'theology and ontology alike end in the Everlasting No with which Science confronts all their assertions' and the Agnosticism set forth in First Principles, which, along with its denials, emphatically utters an Everlasting Yes. And I might show in detail that Mr. Harrison is wrong in implying that Agnosticism, as I hold it, is anything more than silent with respect to the question of personality; since, though the attributes of personality, as we know it, can not be conceived by us as attributes of the Unknown Cause of things, yet 'duty requires us neither to affirm nor deny personality' but 'to submit ourselves with all humility to the established limits of our intelligence' in the conviction that the choice is not 'between personality and something lower than personality' but 'between personality and something higher' and that 'the Ultimate Power is no more representable in terms of human consciousness than human consciousness is representable in terms of a plant's functions'" And again (p. 6Q, id.): "Whereas, in common with his teacher Sir William Hamilton, Dean Mansel alleged that our consciousness of the Absolute is merely 'a negation of conceivability'; I have, over a space of ten pages, contended that our consciousness of the Absolute is not negative but positive, and is the one indestructible element of consciousness ' which persists at all times, under all circumstances, and can not cease until consciousness ceases '—have argued that while the Power which transcends phenomena can not be brought within the forms of our finite thought, yet that, as being a necessary datum of every thought, belief in its existence has, among our beliefs, the highest validity of any: is not, as Sir W. Hamilton alleges, a belief with which we are supernaturally 'inspired' but is a normal deliverance of consciousness."

These quotations are sufficient to show that, as he holds it, there is a positive and affirmative side to the doctrine of the Unknowable, or to agnosticism, as taught by Mr. Spencer; and also that there is occasion for a word or words to express it.

In his article Agnosticism, published in The Popular Science Monthly for April, 1889, Prof. Huxley says:

"Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, 'Try all things, hold fast by that which is good'; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively, the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which, if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

"The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science. That which is unproved to-day may be proved, by the help of new discoveries, to-morrow. The only negative fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demonstrable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted is to have the mind always open to conviction."

In view of such utterances—and of many similar ones in other writings of both Spencer and Huxley—it seems that a positive and affirmative word, or set of words, capable of expressing the agnostic idea, if to be found or framed, would not only be applicable, but would be acceptable to them and fit for the system of thought with which the essay of the evening is concerned.

The words proposed come from the same root as the words gnostic, agnostic, prognostic, and diagnostic.

The root is verbal and affirmative. It means to know; and with the prefix meta, means to know beyond. The noun means beyond-knowledge. Beyond-knowledge may be knowledge "beyond the sphere of sense," and correspond to Spencer's definition of religion, or, as you will, it may refer to all knowledge beyond mere sense-perception, and so include all human knowledge that exceeds that of the brute animal and is derived from or limited by the senses. As for myself, I prefer the total meaning: for then, as the civil engineer uses his base-line and two known angles to measure distances and relations of things beyond the river where he can not go with his tape-line, and the astronomer the distances, actual and relative, of the heavenly bodies, so we may use our actual hither-knowledge for the purpose of dealing with the field of beyond-knowledge—or of the Unknowable—where the senses can give us no direct aid.

As to the appropriateness of the adoption of the proposed words into the English nomenclature of religion, the evidence at hand is still more authoritative and conclusive than in the case of science and philosophy.

In his preceding essay—Religion: A Retrospect and a Prospect—Mr. Spencer begins with these words:

"Unlike the ordinary consciousness, the religious consciousness is concerned with that which lies beyond the sphere of sense. A brute thinks only of things which can be touched, seen, heard, tasted, etc.; and the like is true of the untaught child, the deaf-mute, and the lowest savage. But the developing man has thoughts about existences which he regards as usually intangible, inaudible, invisible; and yet which he regards as operative upon him."

If you ask the source from which the proposed words are derived, the reply is that, as to the second form, it is found in the New Testament, and is the supreme word in the messages of John the Baptist, of St. Paul, of Jesus Christ, and of the gospel generally, wherein it is believed truly to have the precise meaning—as shown by the context—of the proposed English word or words under discussion; and that, as to the first form, it is constructed by throwing out the prefix—a—from the word agnosticism, and substituting the prefix—meta.

Prof. Huxley, the inventor of the word agnostic, is said to have derived it from St. Paul's mention of the Unknown or Agnostic God. The word now suggested is derived from the substitute proposed by St. Paul at the same time. While St. Paul did not advise the Athenians to erect an altar to the metanostic God in place of the altar they had erected to the Agnostic God, he used the word metanoein, and he thereby clearly advocated the practice of what we may properly call metanosticism as the alternative and substitute for agnosticism, in connection with religion and its observances. This he did after expressly declaring the absence of any divine condemnation of their agnosticism, which God is said to have "winked at" or overlooked. The strong and suggestive antithesis made use of by St. Paul has been lost in the translations of the language employed by him on that occasion; but there is no time to enlarge, here and now, upon the fraudulent travesty practiced upon mankind for ages by the Church in translating the original word so used to mean "do penance" and "repent."

I content myself with asking, What would be the consequences of the candid, common, and proper acceptance and use, throughout the civilized world, of such a word to express the central thought of the science, the philosophy, and the religion of our age and of the ages to come, sanctioned by the high priests of each of these departments of thought?

I have only a word to add: Without committing this Association, as its corresponding secretary, or otherwise, or any other person but myself, to the proposition, it is my purpose to submit the question of the adoption of the words meta-gnostic and metagnosticism, or metanostic and metanosticism, as affirmative substitutes for the words agnostic or agnosticism, to Mr. Spencer and Mr. Huxley, in the hope that, as leaders in modern agnostic thought, they will see their way clear to their adoption, and thereby supply a link to unite science, philosophy, and a true Christian religion in behalf of humanity and future ages.

And when their replies are received—if so be—they will be communicated to this Association for its further consideration, and possibly for its co-operative action.


64 Avenue Road, Regent's Park, London, N. W., December 22, 1889.

My Dear Sir: I have to thank you for the volume of Evolution lectures, which I received recently. I presumed that they would eventually be bound together, and that you would kindly send me a copy. This, of course, I shall like to keep.

Will you excuse me if I do not go into the matters raised by your late letters? I have been made so ill by over-excitement that until Wednesday last I had not been out for more than a month, and, though I am now better, I must avoid every mental tax, however small.

I did not receive the journal which you named in your last, containing some matter respecting Dr. Abbott's address (I think it was).

Very truly yours,
Herbert Spencer.
J. A. Skilton, Esq.


Eastbourne, England, December 10, 1889.

Dear Sir: I have read the papers which accompanied your letter of the 25th of November with much attention; but, I regret to say, with the result that I can discover no good ground for the change of nomenclature which you propose. Permit me to trouble you with my reasons for that conclusion:

The term "Agnostic" was not suggested by the passage in the "Acts of the Apostles" in which Paul speaks of an inscription to the "Unknown God" (άγνὡστᾤ Θεᾤ). It is obvious that the author of that inscription was a theist—I may say an anxious theist—who desired not to offend any God, not known to him, by ignoring the existence of such a deity. The person who erected the altar was, therefore, in the same position as those philosophers who, in modern times, have brought about the apotheosis of ignorance under the name of the "Absolute" or its equivalents.

"Agnostic" came into my mind as a fit antithesis to "Gnostic"—the "Gnostics" being those ancient heretics who professed to know most about those very things of which I am quite sure I know nothing.

"Agnostic," therefore, as the name of a philosophical system is senseless; its import lies in being a confession of ignorance—a warning set up against philosophical and theological phantoms—which was never more needed than at the present time, when the ghost of the "Absolute" slain by my masters Hume and Kant and Hamilton is making its appearance in broad daylight.

Your definition of "metagnosticism" says that it "relates to beyond-knowledge." That is exactly what all the "absolute" philosophers profess the "Absolute" does; and it is precisely that profession which I consider to be futile and mischievous. To my mind science is exact and organized knowledge—neither more nor less. And the knowledge which goes "beyond knowledge" is something which my cognitive faculties do not enable me to apprehend.

The term "Evolution Philosophy" which you employ seems to have different meanings for different people.

For me, evolution is a name for a certain process, the occurrence of which in various groups of things is as nearly demonstrated as any historical event can be. And this, I think, constitutes a fair ground for the expectation that the whole cosmic process will turn out to be one of evolution. The business of philosophy, as I understand it, is, among other things, to arrive at a scientific theory of evolution; but these other things are quite as important as evolution. Philosophy, in fact, should embrace the whole of which the theory of evolution is a part.

Three or four generations of patient workers, cautiously feeling their way by the well-known methods of true science, may bring our posterity within sight of such a philosophy. For the present, while welcoming all attempts to foreshadow it, with due gratitude to their authors, and holding fast by that which is good in them, it is very necessary that we should not confound such scaffoldings with the edifice, the foundations of which are not yet complete. I am, dear sir, yours very faithfully,

T. H. Huxley.

James A. Skilton, Esq.

Prof. Huxley asks that the foregoing letter be made public, on the ground that "there seems to be a good deal of misconception as to the position which now (as always) (he) I hold(s) in respect of current philosophical speculations."


Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, April 22, 1890.

My dear Mr. Skilton: There are two distinct questions raised in this correspondence, one an etymological, the other a philosophical one: the first relates to the use of language, the second to the limits of knowledge; the first is as to the meaning of a word, the second as to the powers of the mind.

I. Metanoëo is composed of two Greek words, noëo, to think, and meta. Now meta, in composition, appears to imply one of three things: either (1) fellowship, as in meta-didōmi, to give to or share with another; or (2) exchange, as in metallassō, to change with another, to exchange; or (3) sequence, as in meta-melomai, to care afterward, to regret. I can not find that meta ever signifies beyond. The preposition used for this purpose is huper. Thus we have huperekperissou, exceeding abundantly, literally beyond measure. It would seem, therefore, according to the analogy of language, if the New Testament writers had wished to coin a word to express the idea of knowledge beyond knowledge, the word would have been not meta-noia, but huper-noia.

It is, however, very clear that the word repent does not correctly represent the meaning of the Greek word meta-noeö, if we have regard to the etymologies of the two words. Repent is strictly to repunish, and this is the idea which the Latin mistranslation has carried into the New Testament teaching. We have, as a consequence, the popular idea, that the first step in a religious life is self-inflicted punishment for past sin; an idea which gave rise in the middle ages to the elaborate system of voluntary penances, fasting, flagellations, etc., and, more spiritually interpreted, to the still common idea that no man can begin a Christian life without first undergoing what is called a "conviction of sin"—that is, a sense of shame and sorrow more or less poignant because of sin. This misconception—for I am sure that it is a misconception—leads modern revivalists to endeavor, by various rhetorical and dramatic devices, to create such a feeling of sorrow; and would-be converts to endeavor, co-operating with them, to beget in themselves such an experience. And conversion is thought to be, or at least to be attested by, a sudden emotional change from such an experience of regret and remorse to one of peace and joy. This endeavor is scarcely more consistent with the true teaching of the New Testament than the grosser and more material endeavor to inflict self-punishment for sin by penance. The flagellation of the soul is not more scriptural than the flagellation of the body. What the Bible calls on men to do is not to repent—that is, to punish themselves—but to "change their minds," that is, to change their aims and purposes and habits of thought and inward life. We have no English equivalent, so far as I know, for the Greek words meta-noeö and meta-noia; the phrase "change of mind" expresses an idea quite too superficial. A change of the whole attitude of the soul toward life is indicated. This may, and I think does, involve looking beyond the sphere of sense; it involves a perception of something that is beyond knowledge; but this is rather psychologically involved in the mental condition than etymologically involved in the Greek word meta-noeö.

II. In respect to the psychological question, it is hardly necessary for me to do more than say that I am in entire agreement with you, and with what seems to me to be clearly involved if not explicitly stated in what you have quoted from Herbert Spencer. Scientific knowledge—truth that is scientifically demonstrable—is derived by logical processes from observed phenomena. This scientific process makes it reasonable to believe as a probable hypothesis that there is a psychic life which the decay of the physical organization does not destroy; but what is the nature of that life, and whether it preserves its individuality, or is absorbed into the general psychic force of the universe to reappear in new forms, are questions on which the scientific process throws little or no light. So the scientific process makes it as absolutely certain as anything can be that "we are ever in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy from which all things proceed." But it is far from making certain what is the nature of this Energy, which is scientifically as unknowable as the inherent nature of matter or of force. But there is a knowledge beyond knowledge; that is, a knowledge of truths which are not ascertained by logical processes from observed phenomena, and are not, therefore, demonstrable by logical processes from observed phenomena. We know all æsthetic, all ethical, all spiritual truths by other means than scientific processes. Into these truths we come by looking beyond the sphere of sense; by looking beyond the larger domain of logical deduction; by æsthetic, moral, spiritual perception. We know that God is, because we commune with him as a personal friend and he is "nearer than breathing, closer than hands and feet"; we know that we are immortal—not shall be—because we have in ourselves a consciousness of life which physical pain and decay can not injure or impair. Thus our faith may be truthfully described as a knowledge beyond knowledge; but it is not any less certain and trustworthy because it transcends scientific tests and demonstrations.

I hope I have given a definite and tolerably clear answer to what seem to me to be the two questions implied in your correspondence. There is a knowledge beyond knowledge. The error of agnosticism is not in its denials; it is in its psychology; it is in the fact that it ignores a part and that the larger and more important part of man's mentality—his power to perceive directly and immediately a world not cognizable, directly or indirectly, by the senses; that power which alone makes him a being of taste, of affections, of moral or spiritual capacity. The answer to agnosticism is not in maintaining that by the scientific process we can arrive at certainty concerning truths which are not scientific; it is by a recognition of what you have called meta-nosticism, the power of grasping knowledge beyond knowledge; though the word meta-nosticism, at least in so far as Scripture use is relied on for its meaning, hardly conveys, it appears to me, though it does imply, the idea which you purpose it shall convey in the future.

Yours sincerely,
Lyman Abbott.


Dealing with the uncorrected mistranslations of the New Version, Rev. Treadwell Walden says:[5]

It may now be imagined with what interest and expectation we looked forward to the New Version, realizing full well the difficulty of reproducing the original in this place and elsewhere more faithfully, and of making a change so startling, but hoping that, at the least, a marginal rendering would indicate the literal alternative, or a glossarial note define the Greek expression in a way that would go far to correct the English one. But the revision flows on, making a ripple of change in almost every verse, yet with not a sign of perturbation over this sunken rock. Neither a light-ship nor a buoy warns of a spot where there has been shipwreck before now.

We understand, however, that it was the subject of discussion among the revisers, and that the matter was finally passed by, not because the present rendering was satisfactory, but because no one equivalent English word could be found comprehensive enough for the purpose. What, then, has been so long lost in the Old Version, remains unrecovered in the New, because of a reluctance to employ a paraphrase! The poverty of our language, in this respect, is to keep us poor. Or, it may be, something else was at the bottom of it, symptoms of which are apparent in other instances. It may have been the reluctance of that kind of conservatism which prefers not to disturb traditional notions or long-established formularies. We comfort ourselves, however, with the thought that the New Version is not a finality, but only tentative to that which shall yet meet the brave demand of the nineteenth century. What we have is a bold and noble move, but the whole of English Christendom are in council over it now, and suggestions and. criticisms will flow in for some years to come; changes of view will also take place, making the way clearer and easier to a more fearless and absolute transfer of the original into our native tongue.

It were a bold word from any but a Divine mouth—we should say—and yet the human tongue has been uttering it, virtually, all along in another sphere. What has been the proclamation of science in its own material world, but "Metanoeite? Change your mind from the near testimony of Sense to the distant witness of Discovery"? Sense says: The sun rises in the east and revolves about the earth; the earth is the center of the celestial sphere. But Science—knowledge—proclaims a contradiction, and, with it, a revolution. It is the earth that goes round the sun, the sun is but one of that starry host, the blue firmament melts into illimitable space; it is an illuminated universe which lies out there, in which this apparently ponderous globe floats like an atom in a sunbeam. So Science, an echo of the divine voice, has enlarged, reversed the whole consciousness of man. Her metanoia has been proclaimed, not only here, but everywhere in her material field. Whithersoever she has gone, Nature has inverted its apparent order, its phenomena have widened out into once occult principles, and the first human impression of them has had to be revoked.

We can now imagine how, under such a conception, the pulpit would awake to the grandeur of its work, how the Church would awake to the grandeur of her cause. The themes of the one, the methods of the other, would move with splendor and with power to one definite and mighty end—the summoning of mankind to the metanoia, this new mind, and the announcement of everything on the divine side of life, which would inspire and create it. For we are just on the verge of a great epoch. All this intellectual activity in the material world is surely working toward a moment of reaction when the same intensity of movement will turn the other way, and the universal demand will be for a knowledge of the spiritual. The voice of Science, crying in its wilderness, will be found to have been preparing the way to this. It will turn out to be the "expectation" of this age. Out of its dust and ashes shall mount again the cry: "Metanoeite! for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! n Let us see to it that neither the Bible, the Church, nor the pulpit, gives then an uncertain sound.
Mr. Walden also quotes De Quincey as saying:
In my opinion the Greek, word metanoia concealed a most profound meaning—a meaning of prodigious compass—which tore no allusion to any ideas whatever of repentance. The meta carried with it an emphatic expression of its original idea—the idea of transfer, of translation—or, if we prefer a Grecian to a Roman appareling, the idea of a metamorphosis. And this idea, to what is it applied? Upon what object is the idea of spiritual transfiguration made to bear? Simply upon the noetic or intellectual faculty—the faculty of shaping and conceiving things under their true relations. The holy herald of Christ, and Christ himself, the finisher of prophecy, made proclamation alike of the same mysterious summons, as a baptism or rite of initiation, namely, Μετανοῖτε—henceforth transfigure your theory of moral truth; the old theory is laid aside as infinitely insufficient; a new and spiritual revelation is established. Metanoeite! Contemplate moral truth as radiating from a new center; apprehend it under transfigured relations. No exhibition of blank power—not the arresting of the earth's motion—not the calling back of the dead to life, can approach in grandeur to this miracle which we daily behold—namely, the inconceivable mystery of having written and sculptured upon the tablets of man's heart a new code of moral distinctions, all modifying—many reversing—the old ones. What would have been thought of any prophet, if he should have promised to transfigure the celestial mechanics; if he had said: I will create a new pole-star, a new zodiac, and new laws of gravitation; briefly, I will make a new earth and new heavens? And yet a thousand times more awful it was to undertake the writing of new laws upon the spiritual conscience of man. Metanoeite! (was the cry from the wilderness). Wheel into a new center your moral system—geocentric has that system been up to this hour—that is, having earth and the earthly for its starting-point; henceforth make it heliocentric (that is, with the sun, or the heavenly, for the principle of motion).

In an appendix Mr. Walden also prints an extract from a letter of Rev. Philip Schaff, D. D., in which the latter expresses "cordial approval" of the "able, excellent, and truthful article on the meaning of metanoia" and states that "conservatism prevented a change, and the difficulty of substituting a precise equivalent word," doubtless referring to the proper substitute in the new version for the word "repentance."

Attention may here be called to the fact that Hamilton says, "I would employ the word noetic to express all those cognitions which originate in the mind itself." Why not rather employ the words metanoetic or metagnostic for that purpose? It is to be remembered also that Lewes, in the Foundations of a Creed, says that he found it necessary to invent the new word metempirical, to "clearly designate" the "province where sense has no footing, where experiment can exercise no control, and where calculation ends in impossible quantities," the region of the "supersensible"; and to distinguish it from the province of the empirical, the region of the sensible and the extrasensible. But that word does not seem to have been generally accepted, and is not adequate for our purpose.

It appears, then, from an examination of the accompanying correspondence and quotations, that in two of the most important provinces of human thought, religion and philosophy, there is no proper and accepted English word to designate the supreme principle and element of the systems; that the universally accepted word to designate the same in one of them is, and for many years has been, known to be utterly insufficient if not false, by many among the leaders, and that in the other province such a word is much to be desired.

It is no part of our purpose to discuss the appalling disclosure of an only plan of salvation offered to the world, and yet concealed from it for ages of agony through want of a word by which to make it known; nor to discuss the effects of that disclosure upon the "common people" when it shall be finally made clear to them. After the publication of this article it can no longer be said that no attempt has been made to supply the missing word, and it will be for those whose function it is to decide such matters either to slowly adopt it, to supply a better, or to allow us to drift without it. But at this moment the word here proposed as adequate, and advocated as especially fit in view of its tendency to unite and harmonize both domains of human thought, interest, and activity concerned, has not been accepted by the leading authorities of either religion or philosophy, so far as it has been submitted to them.

However, Dr. Abbott seems to admit that, etymologically, philosophically, and scripturally, the proposed word implies, if it does not convey, the desired meaning.

As to the suggested word hupernoia, the fact that the preposition huper was not used in the New Testament becomes a striking negative argument in favor of our word. Moreover, huper evidently relates to quantity or proportion, and means excess, while meta relates to space or position, and means universally—according to Webster—in composition, beyond, over, after, etc.

Much remains to be said, but enough has already been said to open the discussion of the subject, and to put the responsibilities of the situation upon the leaders of religious and philosophic thought, to whom they properly belong.

The objects of anthropometry, according to Mr. Francis Galton, are to define the individual or the race, and to show in what way and to what extent he or it differs from the others. By taking measurements the individual is taught to know his own relative powers at any given time, and we are helped to watch over the development during the period of growth, and to give it direction if it does not proceed normally. Measurements of the head are designed to show how much and up to what age the brain continues to grow, and to aid in comparing the educated with the uneducated classes.
  1. The word he uses is "deisidaimonesterous," and includes the idea of devil-fearing.
  2. The authority of the Century Dictionary for this erroneous explanation of Prof. Huxley's derivation of the word "agnostic" (see letter from Prof. Huxley) was the New English Dictionary.
  3. The substance of the sermon is embodied in an article in the Forum for April, 1890.
  4. For a discussion of meta(g)nosticism in relation to the evolution of society, see Evolution—Popular Lectures and Discussions, before the Brooklyn Ethical Association, pp. 216-227.
  5. An Undeveloped Chapter in the Life of Christ. The Great Meaning of the Word Metanoia, lost in the Old Version, unrecovered in the New, pp. 14, IV, 18, 38, 39.