Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/May 1875/Discourse on the Death of Lyell

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DEAN STANLEY selected for his sermon the words of the second verse of the first chapter of Genesis: "The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." The sermon was, in fact, a discourse on the religious aspect of geology.

The words of the text, the dean said, have a sense wider than the mere literal transcript. They express the transition from that gulf which the Greeks called chaos, to the order of the universe which a modern philosopher described under the head of "cosmos." The words in the original, which portray the formless void of the earth, convey most precisely the image of warring elements, while the words used for the moving of the Divine Spirit on the face of the waters express the gentle brooding, as it were, of a bird of peace. The language, however poetic, childlike, parabolical, and unscientific, impresses upon us the principle which applies, in both the moral and in the material world, that the law of the divine operation is the gradual, peaceful, progressive development of discord into harmony, confusion into order, darkness into light.

It chanced that within the short month of February, by a most unusual coincidence of mortality, twice had the gates of the abbey been opened to pay the last honors to two men widely apart in all else, but alike in the share they took in unfolding and exemplifying this divine law, the one the acknowledged chief of the English musicians of our time, the other the acknowledged head of those who, whether here or elsewhere, have devoted their talents to the study of the history of our mother earth. Of all the branches of art and letters, none more reveals the hidden capacities of the human soul, or the fearful and wonderful structure of the human frame, than the slow process through which, from the most barbarous sounds, the spirit which brooded over the harp of David, and inspired the genius of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, has gained its majesty and glory.

This passing allusion to a great musician, this indication of the latent capacities for spiritual emotion brought out by abstract and inanimate things, elements seemingly without form and void, was no unfitting prelude to the consideration of the study of Nature, of which he who has just gone was so bright an example.

It is well known that, when the study of geology first arose, it was involved in interminable schemes of reconciliation with the letter of Scripture. There were and are two modes of reconciliation, which have each totally and deservedly failed. The one attempts to wrest the words of the Bible from their real meaning, and force them to speak the language of science; and the other attempts to falsify science to meet the supposed requirements of the Bible. The "seventy," finding that the hare was described as chewing the cud, inserted the word "not;" and on the other hand, the Jesuits, in editing Newton's "Principia," announced in the preface that they were constrained to treat the theory of gravitation as a fictitious hypothesis, else it would conflict with the decrees of the popes against the motion of the earth.

But there is another reconciliation of a higher kind, or rather not a reconciliation, but an acknowledgment of the affinity and identity which exist between the spirit of science and the spirit of the Bible. First, there is a likeness of the general spirit of the Bible truths; and, secondly, there is a likeness in the methods. For instance, the geological truth which our illustrious student was the chief instrument in clearly setting forth and establishing was the doctrine, wrought out by careful, cautious inquiry in all parts of the world, that the frame of this earth was gradually brought into its present condition not by sudden and violent convulsions, but by the slow and silent action of the same causes which we see now, but operating through a long succession of ages beyond the memory and imagination of man. There need be no question whether this doctrine agrees or not with the letter of the Bible. We do not expect it should. For, had there been no such scientific conclusions, we now know perfectly well, from our increased insight into the nature and origin of the early biblical records, that they were not and could not be literal, prosaic, matter-of-fact descriptions of the beginning of the world, of which, as of its end, no man knoweth or can conceive except by figures or parables. It is now clear to all students of the Bible that the first and second chapters of Genesis contain two narratives of the creation side by side, differing from each other in almost every particular of time and place and order. It is now known that the vast epochs demanded by scientific observation are incompatible both with the 6,000 years of the Mosaic chronology and the six days of the Mosaic Creation. No one now infers from the Bible that the earth is fixed, that it cannot be moved, that the sun does literally go forth as a bridegroom from his chamber, or that the stars sung with an audible voice in the dawn of the creation. But when we rise to the spirit, the ideal, the general drift and purpose of the biblical accounts, we find ourselves in an atmosphere of moral elevation which meets the highest requirements-philosophy can make.

The discoveries of geology are found to fill up the old religious truths with a new life, and to derive from them in turn a hallowing glory. When the historian of our planet points out that the successive layers of the earth's surface were formed by such agencies as we know of now, by the constant action of wind and wave, of floating ice and rolling stones—that there were not separate centres of creation, but one primeval law which formed and governed all created things—what is this but the echo of those voices which of old declared that in the beginning the heaven and earth were created, not by a thousand conflicting deities, but by one supreme and indivisible, and that He hath given all things a law that shall not be broken? And we may compare the vast infinities of time and space, that long ascending order, that gradual progress demanded by geology, with the words in the sublime ninetieth psalm, read at the burial service: "A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday which is past, and as a watch in the night." Surely the view of the gradual preparation of the earth for mankind is grander than that which makes him coeval with the beasts which perish, and we ought to honor the archæologist who by unhasting, unresting research revealed in all their length and breadth the genealogy and the antiquity of man and of his habitation. He rent the veil and showed the long vista of the temple of the Most High, not made with hands—"Apparet domus intus, et atria longa patescunt." Not the limitation but the amplification of the idea of God is the result of the labor of such a student, and not the descent but the ascent of man is the outcome of his speculations. If, as he used to say, we have in our bones the chill of the contracted view of the past in which till now we were brought up, the enlargement which he effected of that view ought to give a warmth, a fire to our soul of souls, in proportion as we feel that we are indeed not the creatures of yesterday, but the heirs of the ages and worlds that have perished in the making of us.

As to the likeness of the general spirit of the method of science to that of the Bible, the Bible is a model to the student in its slow but increasing purpose of revelation, through sundry times and divers manners, warning each succeeding age to have its eyes open and every member of the human race to be the disciple—that is, "scholar," as the founder of Christianity called his followers. To invest the pursuit of truth with the sanctity of a religious duty is the true reconciliation of religion and science. Such a union has been the special glory of the great school of English geologists, and the two pioneers of the science at the time when it had to fight its way against prejudice, ignorance, and apathy, were both honored dignitaries of the English Church; and now within these walls there rests beneath the monument of Woodward one who was the friend of Sedgwick and the pupil of Buckland. He followed truth with a sanctified zeal, a childlike humility. For discovering, confirming, rectifying his conclusions, there was no journey he would not undertake. From early youth to extreme old age it was to him a religious duty fearlessly to correct all his own mistakes, and he was always ready to receive from others and reproduce that which he had not in himself. In his mind science and religion were indivisible. The freedom of religious inquiry in the national Church, the cause of humanity in the world at large, were to him as dear as though they were his own personal and peculiar concern. There is unusual solemnity in the thought of his passage into the eternal world, on which, as in a shadow or mirror, he had so long meditated, in those long ages of which he was, as it were, the first discoverer. The "lofty and melancholy strain," the ninetieth Psalm, which old tradition ascribes to Moses, the man of God, whether it be or not the funeral hymn of the great lawgiver, well represents the feeling of one grown gray with vast experience, who at the close of his earthly journeyings contrasts the fleeting generations of man with the granite forms of the mountains at the feet of which he has wandered, and contrasts those mountains and man alike with Him who existed before, beyond, and above them all. It sums up with peculiar force the inner life of the Christian philosopher who concluded his chief work with the contrast between the finite powers of man and the attributes of an infinite God, and who felt persuaded that, after all the discoveries on earth or sea or sky, the religious sentiment remained the greatest and most indestructible instinct of the human race.