Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/May 1875/The Deeper Harmonies of Science and Religion I
|THE DEEPER HARMONIES OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION.|
THERE are two very opposite parties among us at the present day, whose language is in one respect very strikingly similar. The Christian Church has from the beginning spoken with a certain contempt of learning. "The wisdom of the world," "oppositions of science falsely so called," "to the Greeks foolishness;" these are the phrases of one of the earliest and highest of Christian authorities. In our own country the two most powerful of Christian movements, Puritanism and Evangelicalism, have been distinctly marked with this characteristic feature, although it might be possible to mention one or two learned Evangelicals and several learned Puritans. That there have been, and are, a vast number of men at the same time Christian and learned, does not affect the fact that Christianity holds itself aloof from and in a manner superior to learning. Such men, where their Christian feeling has been intense, have often spoken disparagingly of their own learning, as of a thing of little value, and have taken a pride in placing themselves on a level with the ignorant. If it is true that eloquent vindications of learning from the Christian point of view might be quoted, lofty assertions of the sympathy of Christianity for whatever is true and elevated, such assertions do not prove so much as is proved by the necessity of making them. If we admire them, it is rather because we love learning than because we love Christianity. We admire them as noble deviations from the Christian tradition, in a point where we have a misgiving that Christianity may be narrow. Yet this contempt for learning no Christian would admit to be equivalent to a contempt for knowledge. Knowledge, a certain kind of knowledge. Christians maintain to be the only thing worth having. Wealth, power, every thing that is counted desirable, they despise in comparison with a certain kind of knowledge. It is among these things comparatively despicable that they class what is commonly called learning. They despise it not as learning, but as learning comparatively worthless in quality, as being but a counterfeit of the true learning which it is happiness and salvation to possess.
Now, in this respect quite an opposite school hold the very same language. Scientific men resemble Christians, in treating with great contempt what goes by the name of learning and philosophy, in comparison with another sort of wisdom which they believe themselves to possess. Like Christians, they are no contemners of knowledge; on the contrary, in praise of knowledge they grow eloquent, and use language of scriptural elevation. "Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting, get understanding." It is their unceasing cry that all good is to be expected from the increase of true knowledge; that the happiness, both of the race and individuals, depends upon the advance of real science, and the application of it to human life. Yet they have a contempt for learning, which is just as Christian in its tone as their love for knowledge. "Erudition" and "philosophy" are terms of contempt in their mouths. The first they consider to be, for the most part, a criminal waste of time; philosophy they denounce as consisting mainly of empty words, and offering solutions either imaginary or unintelligible of problems which are either imaginary or unintelligible themselves. In some scientific men this feeling of contempt for learning is concealed; they will profess to admire scholarship and erudition, speaking of it as a graceful accomplishment; and it is only in unguarded moments that they betray their conviction that it is nothing more; others proclaim it loudly, and some even wish to bring public opinion to bear upon the matter, so as to prevent as an immorality the acquiring of useless knowledge.
Thus, the old religious school, and that new school whose convictions we see now gradually acquiring the character of a religion, agree in combining a passionate love for what they believe true knowledge, with a contempt for so-called learning and philosophy. The common enemy of both is what the one school calls, and the other might well call, "the wisdom of the world." But though agreeing so far, these two schools hate their common enemy much less than they hate each other. For each regards the "true wisdom" of the other as worse and more mischievous than the wisdom of the world which each rejects. To the scientific school the Christian γνῷσις is a mystical superstition, compared with which "learning and philosophy" are science itself. To the Christian, modern science is a darkness compared with which the science that St. Paul rejected might almost be called Christianity.
Nothing is so terrible as this clashing of opposite religions. Differences on important subjects are always painful, but the direct shock of contrary enthusiasms has something appalling about it. That one man's highest truth should be another man's deadliest falsehood; that one man should be ready to die in disinterested self-devotion for a cause which another man is equally ready to oppose at the sacrifice of his life; this is a horror which is none the less horrible because it has often been witnessed on this perplexed planet. But often it has been seen, long after the conflict was over, that there had been misapprehension; that the difference of opinion was not really any thing like so complete as it seemed. Nay, it has often happened that a later generation has seen the difference to be very small indeed, and has wondered that so much could have been made of it. In such cases the mind is relieved of that fancy of a radical discord in human nature. We see that self-devotions have not really clashed in such fell antagonism. We see that with self-devotion there may mix less noble feelings, and that the immitigable hostility of religious strife may be caused by a mixture of ardent conviction with some impulses less noble, with some that are blamable and some that are even ludicrous, with mere pugnacity, with the passion of gratifying self-importance, with the half-noble pleasure that there is in fighting, and the ignoble pleasure that there is in giving pain.
It would certainly be hard enough to show that the present strife between Christianity and science is one in which insignificant differences are magnified by the imagination of the combatants. The question is nothing less than this, whether we are to regard the grave with assured hope, and the ties between human beings as indissoluble by death; or, on the other hand, to dismiss the thought of a future life as too doubtful to be worth considering, even if not absolutely chimerical. No reasoning can make such a difference into a small one. But even where the differences are so great, it may still be worth while to call attention to the points of agreement. In our penury of truth we ought to make the very utmost of our agreements. Let us rescue whatever we can from the waves of doubt; sailors thrown shipwrecked on a desert island must save what they can, not what they would. If there is some truth, however small, upon which all can agree, then there is some action upon which all can unite; and who can tell how much may be done by any thing so rare as absolute unanimity? Moreover, if we look closely, we shall always find our agreement to be more than we had expected. It seems as if men valued difference of opinion for its own sake. We seem not to care for any doctrine that is not controvertible, We talk with contempt of platitudes and truisms. Platitudes and truisms do not work up into interesting books; but, if our object is to accomplish something for human life, we shall scarcely find any truth serviceable that has not been rubbed into a truism, and scarcely any maxim that has not been worn into a platitude. But men seldom apply to truths this test of practice; they try them by the other test, which is the test of talk and debate. Thus it happens that ten points of agreement seem less important in most assemblies than one point of difference. Why is it men do not discover by experience the waste that is caused by this method? Either they must have a great deal of time on their hands, or else they have most unreasonable expectations from controversy. But I return to my point.
We are all familiar with the language used by Christians in disparagement of learning. God, they say, has revealed to men all that is essential for them to know. By the side of revealed knowledge what the human intellect can discover for itself is of little importance. If it seem to clash with revelation, it is mischievous; if not, it may be useful in a subordinate degree. But at the best it is contemptible by the side of the "one thing needful;" and the greatest discoverer that ever lived is a trifler compared with the most simple-minded Christian who has studied to fulfill the requirements of the gospel.
There are indeed a true erudition and a true philosophy, the subject of which is God's revelation itself. Scholars, profoundly read in the sources of theology, whether they be supposed to be the Bible or the Fathers of the Church; philosophers who have made the Christian revelation their basis, or have collected and elucidated the evidence of it—these are truly wise, and escape the censure of frivolity under which secular learning lies; but even these, illustrious and venerable as they may be, will acknowledge that there is a wisdom beyond their own, which the humblest Christian may possess, the wisdom of simple belief and love.
We are less familiar as yet with the invectives of scientific men against what has long passed for learning and philosophy in the world. Different sections of the scientific school bring the accusation in different language. Yet the same feeling, the same strong and contemptuous conviction, pervades the whole school. What they reject and assail is, in two words, knowledge based on authority, and knowledge wanting an inductive basis.
That the utterances of great and famous philosophers are to be taken as truth; that in science, as in the civil law, the responsa prudentum have a binding force; has been accepted in some departments of knowledge up to the present day. Long after the authority of Aristotle had been shaken, new thinkers were allowed to occupy a similar place in some brandies, and from Descartes to Hegel a sort of monarchical rule has prevailed in metaphysics. The scientific school tolerates nothing of this kind. Not that it refuses to reverence superior minds, not perhaps that it is altogether incapable of yielding to the temptation of trusting a particular authority for a while too much, or following a temporary fashion. But as a general rule it rejects as a superstition the notion that the most superior mind is at all infallible; it dissents without scruple from those whom it reverences most; and on the other hand the most eminent members of it encourage this freedom, are well pleased to be contradicted, and avoid assuming an oracular style as a mark of charlatanry. Such a coup d'état in philosophy as that of Auguste Comte is resolutely resisted, and the autocracy of Hegel comes to an end, not by the accession of a new monarch, but rather by the proclamation of a republic in German philosophy.
By the introduction of this new principle a large proportion of the doctrine current in the world is branded with the mark of spuriousness. In theology, metaphysics, moral philosophy, history, politics, the principle of authority has reigned hitherto with more or less exclusiveness. The repudiation of it is a revolution in those departments of knowledge. It converts whole libraries into waste-paper, silences controversies that have raged for ages, reduces to worthlessness the whole store of learning hived up in many capacious memories. It throws discredit at the same time upon the very name of erudition; not as such, for there is a kind of erudition much appreciated by the scientific school; but because erudition, as hitherto understood, has commonly gone along with, has in a great degree grown out of, an excessive reverence for the opinions of famous men. All that part of erudition, in particular, which is to knowledge what relic-worship is to religion, the laborious collection of minute facts that concern illustrious men, begins to seem superstitious and childish when the general estimate of human wisdom so decidedly sinks.
But the more important change is in the extension of the Baconian method to the whole domain of philosophy. While one part of the "wisdom of the world" has been discredited as resting solely on authority, another large division of it is now rejected as resting on inductions insufficient or untrustworthy, and another as resting on groundless assumptions, disguised under the name of necessary truths, truths of the reason, truths given in consciousness, etc. The long habit of trying experiments, the vast experience which has been gained of the mistakes which may be made about matters of fact and of the infinite carelessness of the unscientific mind, have exposed to doubt whatever has been deduced in past ages from facts not recurrent or capable of being reproduced at will. The steady progress of discovery in the experimental sciences has stood out in contrast with the oscillating and unprogressive character of the sciences of mind. Moreover, in their process of extension the experimental sciences have constantly trenched on the domain which was supposed to lie definitively beyond their limit. Physiology has brought us close to mind, and the old distinction between matter and spirit begins to be slighted as a superstition. The old psychology also is assailed as not properly based on physiology. Moral philosophy does not escape. It, as well as the philosophy of law, has suffered through the influx of new knowledge about remote races of men. Duties and rights, which once appeared axiomatic, and inseparable from human nature, now appear the artificial products of special conditions. The very notion of duty itself is represented as such an artificial product.
All these new ideas gathering upon our minds produce a skepticism with regard to current philosophy which extends much further than the particular beliefs with which they seem to conflict. We have grown so accustomed to find so-called incontrovertible axioms resolve themselves into inveterate prejudices, that we have grown shy of all those facile generalities which captivated former ages. Those current abstractions which make up all the morality and all the philosophy of most people, have become suspicious and dangerous to us. Mind and matter, duties and rights, morality and expediency, honor and interest, virtue and vice, all these words, which seemed once to express elementary and certain realities, now strike us as just the words which, thrown into the scientific crucible, might dissolve at once. It is thus not merely philosophy which is discredited, but just that homely and popular wisdom by which common life is guided. This, too, it appears, instead of being the sterling product of plain experience, is the overflow of a spurious philosophy, the redundance of the uncontrolled speculations of thinkers who were unacquainted with scientific method.
This second change leads to self-distrust, as the first led to distrust of other men. As we learn not to take our truth at second-hand from other thinkers, so we learn that we must not take it, if the expression may be used, from ourselves. Truth is not what ice think, any more than it is what famous men have thought. That which irresistibly strikes us as true, that which seems self-evident, that which commends itself to us, may nevertheless, we learn, not be true at all. It is not enough to judge for ourselves, to examine the facts independently. We must examine the facts according to a rigorous method, which has been elaborated by a long series of investigators, and without which neither candor nor impartiality would save us either from seeing wrong, or from receiving unsound evidence, or from generalizing too fast, or from allowing some delusive name to come between us and the reality. Distrust of others, distrust of ourselves—if the first of these two factors of the scientific spirit were separated from the second, the result would be mere self-conceit, mere irreverence. As it is, the scientific spirit is simply a jealous watchfulness against that tendency of human nature to road itself into the universe, which will show itself both in each individual and in the very greatest investigators, and which can only be controlled by rigorously adhering to a fixed process, and rigidly verifying the work of others by the same.
Knowledge, not scientifically obtained and verified, might very fitly be called by the name which Christianity uses. It might be called "human knowledge," or "the wisdom of the world." For the difference between it and genuine knowledge is just this, that it is adulterated by a human element. It is not the result of a contact between the universe and the naked human intelligence. The perceiving mind has mixed itself up with the thing perceived, and not merely in the way in which it always must, in the way which constitutes cognition, but in quite other and arbitrary ways, by wishes, by prejudices, by crotchets, by vanities. Such humanized views of the universe have a peculiar though cheap attractiveness. They naturally please the human mind, because, in fact, they were expressly contrived to do so. They adapt themselves readily to rhetoric and poetry, because, in fact, they are rhetoric and poetry in disguise. To reject them is to mortify human nature; it is an act of vigorous asceticism. It is to renounce the world as truly as the Christian does when he protests against fashionable vices. It is to reject a pleasant thing on the ground that it is insincere—that it is not, in fact, what it professes to be. The moral attitude of the man who does it is just such as Hebrew prophets assumed toward the flattering and lying court-prophets of their day; just such as Christianity itself assumed toward Pharisaism; just such as Luther and Knox assumed toward mediævalism; just such as the Puritans assumed toward prelacy. It is an attitude of indignant sincerity, an attitude marking an inward determination to face the truth of the universe, however disagreeable, and not to allow it to be adulterated and drugged, so as to suit our human feebleness. If we cannot produce from the authoritative documents of religion texts directly sanctioning it, this is because the particular problem was not presented in ancient times to the nation which gave us our religion. Those documents are full of passages expressing in poetic forms and in language suited to another age the spirit of modern science. Notably, the book of Job, not in occasional passages only, but as its main object and drift, contrasts the conventional, and, as it were, orthodox view of the universe, with the view which those obtain who are prepared to face its awfulness directly.
Thus the religious view and the scientific view of the universe, which are thought to be so opposite, agree in this important point. Both protest earnestly against human wisdom. Both wait for a message which is to come to them from without. Religion says, "Let man be silent, and listen when God speaks." Science says, "Let us interrogate Nature, and let us be sure that the answer we get is really Nature's, and not merely an echo of our own voice." Now, whether or not religion and science agree in what they recommend, it is evident that they agree in what they denounce. They agree in denouncing that pride of the human intellect which supposes it knows every thing, which is not passive enough in the presence of reality, but deceives itself with pompous words instead of things, and with flattering eloquence instead of sober truth.
Here, however, it will be said, the agreement between religion and science ends, and even this agreement is only apparent. Science protests against the idols or delusions of the human intellect, in order that it may substitute for them the reality of Nature; religion sacrifices all those idols to the greatest of them all, which is God. For what is God—so the argument runs—but an hypothesis, which religious men have mistaken for a demonstrated reality? And is it not precisely against such premature hypotheses that science most strenuously protests? That a Personal Will is the cause of the universe—this might stand very well as an hypothesis to work with, until facts should either confirm it, or force it to give way to another either different or at least modified. That this Personal Will is benevolent, and is shown to be so by the facts of the universe, which evince a providential care for man and other animals—this is just one of those plausibilities which passed muster before scientific method was understood—but modern science rejects it as unproved. Modern science holds that there may be design in the universe, but that to penetrate the design is, and probably always will be, beyond the power of the human understanding. That this Personal Will has on particular occasions revealed itself by breaking through the customary order of the universe, and performing what are called miracles—this is one of those legends of which histories were full, until a stricter view of evidence was introduced, and the modern critical spirit sifted thoroughly the annals of the world. But if modern science be right in these opinions, the very notion of God is removed altogether from the domain of practical life. So long as God appeared certainly to exist, he necessarily eclipsed and reduced to insignificance all other existences. So long as it was held possible to discover his will and mind, all other inquiries might reasonably be pronounced frivolous. But all is changed as soon as we begin to regard his existence as a mere hypothesis, and his will as inscrutable and beyond the reach of the human understanding. Not only is all changed, but all is reversed. Instead of being the one important question, God's will now becomes the one unimportant question, because the one question which it is essentially impossible to answer. Whereas, before we might charge men with frivolity who neglected this inquiry for inquiries the most important in themselves, now we may pronounce the shallowest dilettant, the most laboriously idle antiquary, a solid and sensible man, compared to the theologian. They pursue, to be sure, very minute objects, but they do or may attain them; the theologian attempts an impossibility—he is like the child who tries to reach the beginning of the rainbow.
It would appear, then, that that which I have called "human wisdom," and which is the butt, at the same time, of theology and science, is so because it is a kind of middle party between two mortally hostile factions. It is like the Girondins between the Royalists and the Jacobins; both may oppose, and may even in a particular case combine to oppose it, and yet on that account they may not have the smallest sympathy with each other. And the middle party once crushed, there will follow no reconciliation, but a mortal contest between the extremes. Is this so or is it otherwise? The question is whether the statement given above of the theological view of the universe is exhaustive or not? Is it all summed up in the three propositions that a Personal Will is the cause of the universe, that that Will is perfectly benevolent, that that Will has sometimes interfered by miracles with the order of the universe? If these propositions exhaust it, and science throws discredit upon all of them, evidently theology and science are irreconcilable, and the contest between them must end in the destruction of one or the other.
It may be remarked, in the first place, that these propositions are not so much an abstract of theology as of the particular theology now current. That God is perfectly benevolent is a maxim of popular Christianity, and it may be found stated in the Bible. But it is not necessary to theology as such. Many nations have believed in gods of mixed or positively malignant character. Other nations have indeed ascribed to their deities all the admirable qualities they could conceive, but benevolence was not one of these. They have believed in gods that were beautiful, powerful, immortal, happy, but not benevolent. It may even be said that the Bible and Christianity itself have not uniformly represented God as perfectly benevolent. In the Old Testament he is described as just, but at the same time terrible and pitiless against the wicked; and at least one form of modern Christianity, Calvinism, takes a view of the Divine character which it is impossible to reconcile with infinite benevolence. Moreover, if almost all theologies have introduced what we should ascribe as miracle, yet it would be very incorrect to class many of them in this respect with that current view of Christianity, which represents God as demonstrating his existence by occasional interruptions of the order, otherwise invariable, of Nature. Probably, in the majority of theologies, no other law of Nature, except the will of God, is recognized; miracle, when it is introduced, is not regarded as breaking through any order; the very notion conveyed by the word supernatural is unacknowledged; miraculous occurrences are not distinguished from ordinary ones, except as being rarer, and not distinguished from rare occurrences at all. To an ancient Jew probably an earthquake and the staying of the sun on Gibeon were occurrences of precisely the same character and not distinguished as they are in our minds, the one as rare but natural, the other as supernatural and miraculous. All that was miraculous might have been removed from the creed of an ancient Jew without shaking his theology. Two out of the three propositions, then, are not necessary to the theological view of the universe. But surely the third is. Surely all theology implies that a Personal Will is the cause of the universe. I cannot admit even this. In the first place it is a very shallow view of theologies which represents them as having in all cases sprung from speculation about causes. Undoubtedly we can trace this speculation in our own religion. The phenomena of the world are accounted for very manifestly in the book of Genesis by the fiat of a Personal Will. But this is not at all an invariable character of theology. The Deity of a thing is often regarded in theologies not at all as the cause of it, but in quite another way, perhaps I might say as the unity of it. No one has ever supposed that the Greeks regarded Poseidon as the cause of the sea. Athena seems to have been suggested to them by the sky, but she is not the cause of the sky. And it would be easy to conceive a theology which did not occupy itself at all with causes, but which at the same time conceived the separate phenomena of the universe, or the universe itself altogether personally
May we, then, alter the proposition thus—instead of saying. It is characteristic of the theological view of the universe to suppose a personal will or wills to be the cause of all phenomena, may we say, Theology invariably conceives the universe under the form of personality, a personal will being assumed as either the cause or the law of phenomena? Even this would be to go too far. Personality is only known to us as belonging to human beings. Personality is properly the abstraction of the qualities common to man, woman and child. Of these one of the principal is what we call the will. Now, the utmost that can be said is that theology has asserted an analogy more or less strong between the phenomena of Nature and human beings. Personality entire has never been attributed in any theology to deities. Personality, as we know it, involves mortality. Deities are always supposed immortal. Personality involves a body. The highest theologies have declared God to be incorporeal. We are brought back, then, to the will. Theologies attribute to deities a will like that of human beings. They do so; but again the highest theologies assert that the Divine Will is high above the human; that there is "no searching" of it; "that as the heaven is high above the earth, so are his ways than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts."
If the possibility of miracles were entirely given up, and the order of Nature decided to be as invariable as science inclines to consider it; if all the appearances of benevolent design in the universe were explained away, it might be true that the belief in God would cease to be consoling. Instead of being a spring of life and activity, it might—I am not now saying it would—become a depressing and overwhelming influence. And this, no doubt, is what people mean when they identify, as they commonly do, the belief in God with belief in an overruling Benevolence, and in the supernatural. They mean to say, not exactly that the belief in God is necessarily this, but that to be in any way useful or beneficial it must necessarily be this. But for my present purpose it is important to distinguish between the God in whom ordinary people at the present day believe, and a God of another character in whom they might conceivably believe. I desire to insist upon the point that when science speaks of God as a myth or an hypothesis, and declares the existence of God to be doubtful, and destined always to remain doubtful, it is speaking of a particular conception of God, of God conceived as benevolent, as outside of Nature, as personal, as the cause of phenomena. Do these attributes of benevolence, personality, etc., exhaust the idea of God? Are they—not merely the most important, the most consoling of his attributes, but—the only ones? By denying them do we cease not merely to be orthodox Christians, but to be theists?
Science opposes to God Nature. When it denies God it denies the existence of any power beyond or superior to Nature; and it may deny at the-same time any thing like a cause of Nature. It believes in certain laws of coexistence and sequence in phenomena, and in denying God it means to deny that any thing further can be known. God and Nature, then, express ideas which are different in an important particular. But it is evident enough that these ideas are not the opposites that controversy would represent them to be. On the contrary, they coincide up to a certain point. Those who believe in Nature may deny God, but those who believe in God believe, as a matter of course, in Nature also. The belief in God includes the belief in Nature, as the whole includes the part. Science would represent theology as disregarding Nature, as passing over those laws which govern the universe, and occupying itself solely with occasional suspensions of them, or with ulterior, inscrutable causes. But this account of theology is derived from a partial view of it. It is practically to some extent true of the theologies of recent times, which have been driven out of the domain of Nature by the rival and victorious method of physical science. But it is not true at all of the older theologies. They occupied themselves quite as much with laws as with causes; so far from being opposed to science, they were in fact themselves science in a rudimentary form; so far from neglecting the natural for the supernatural, they recognized no such distinction. The true object of theology at the beginning was to throw light upon natural laws; it used, no doubt, a crude method, and in some cases it attempted problems which modern science calls insoluble. Then, when a new method was introduced, theology stuck obstinately to its old one, and when the new method proved itself successful, theology gradually withdrew into those domains, where as yet the old method was not threatened, and might still reign without opposition. Thus it began to be supposed that law belonged to science, and suspension of law, or miracle, to theology; that the one was concerned with Nature, and the other with that which was above Nature. Gradually the name of God began to be associated with the supernatural, and scientific men began to say they had nothing to do with God, and theologians to find something alien to them in the word Nature.
Yet theology can never go further than this in repudiating Nature. It can never deny that Nature is an ordinance of God; it can never question that the laws of Nature are laws of God. It may indeed treat them as of secondary importance; it may consider that they reveal God in an aspect in which it is not most important that we should know him. But it cannot and does not deny that Nature, too, is a revelation of God; it ought not to deny that natural philosophy is a part of theology, that there is a theology which may be called natural, and which does not consist in a collection of the evidences of benevolent design in the universe, but in a true deduction of the laws which govern the universe, whatever those laws may be, and whatever they may seem to indicate concerning the character of God.
But, if, on the one hand, the study of Nature be one part of the study of God, is it not true, on the other, that he who believes only in Nature is a theist, and has a theology? Men slide easily from the most momentous controversies into the most contemptible logomachies. If we will look at things, and not merely at words, we shall soon see that the scientific man has a theology and a God, a most impressive theology, a most awful and glorious God. I say that man believes in a God who feels himself in the presence of a Power apart from and immeasurably above his own, a Power in the contemplation of which he is absorbed, in the knowledge of which he finds safety and happiness. And such now is Nature to the scientific man. I do not now say that it is good or satisfying to worship such a God, but I say that no class of men since the world began have ever more truly believed in a God, or more ardently, or with more conviction, worshiped him. Comparing their religion in its fresh youth to the present confused forms of Christianity, I think a by-stander would say that though Christianity had in it something far higher and deeper and more ennobling, yet the average scientific man worships just at present a more awful, and, as it were, a greater Deity than the average Christian. In so many Christians the idea of God has been degraded by childish and little-minded teaching; the Eternal and the Infinite and the All-embracing has been represented as the head of the clerical interest, as a sort of clergyman, as a sort of school-master, as a sort of philanthropist. But the scientific man knows him to be eternal; in astronomy, in geology, he becomes familiar with the countless millenniums of his lifetime. The scientific man strains his mind actually to realize God's infinity. In the fixed stars he traces him, "distance inexpressible by numbers that have name." Meanwhile, to the theologian, infinity and eternity are very much of empty words when applied to the object of his worship. He does not realize them in actual facts and definite computations.
But it is not merely because he realizes a stupendous Power that I call the scientific man a theist. A true theist ought to recognize his Deity as giving him the law to which his life ought to be conformed. Now, here it is that the resemblance of modern science to theology comes put most manifestly. There is no stronger conviction in this age than the conviction of the scientific man, that all happiness depends upon the knowledge of the laws of Nature, and the careful adaptation of human life to them. Of this I have spoken before. Luther and Calvin were not more jealous of the Church tradition that had obscured the true word of God in the Scriptures than the modern man of science is of the metaphysics and conventional philosophy that have beguiled men away from Nature and her laws. They want to remodel all education, all preaching, so that the laws of Nature may become known to every man, and that every one may be in a condition to find his happiness in obeying them. They chafe at the notion of men studying any thing else. They behave toward those who do not know Nature with the same sort of impatient insolence with which a Christian behaved toward the worshipers of the emperor or a Mohammedan toward idolaters. As I sympathize very partially with the Mohammedan, and not quite perfectly with the early Christian, so I find the modern scientific zeal narrow and fanatical; but I recognize that it is zeal of the same kind as theirs—that is, that, like theirs, it is theological.
An infinite Power will inspire awe and an anxious desire to obey its laws on the part of those who feel themselves dependent on it. But such awe and fear, it may be said, do not constitute worship; worship implies admiration, and something which may be called love. Now, it is true that the scientific man cannot feel for Nature such love as a pious mind may feel for the God of Christians. The highest love is inspired by love, or by justice and goodness, and of these qualities science as yet discerns little or nothing in Nature. But a very genuine love, though of a lower kind, is felt by the contemplator of Nature. Nature, if not morally good, is infinitely interesting, infinitely beautiful. He who studies it has continually the exquisite pleasure of discerning or half discerning and divining laws; regularities glimmer through an appearance of confusion; analogies between phenomena of a different order suggest themselves and set the imagination in motion; the mind is haunted with the sense of a vast unity not yet discoverable or namable. There is food for contemplation which never runs short; you are gazing at an object which is always growing clearer, and yet always, in the very act of growing clearer, presenting new mysteries. And this arresting and absorbing spectacle, so fascinating by its variety, is at the same time overwhelming by its greatness; so that those who have devoted their lives to the contemplation scarcely ever fail to testify to the endless delight it gives them, and also to the overpowering awe with which from time to time it surprises them.
There is one more feeling which a worshiper should have for his Deity, a sense of personal connection, and, as it were, relationship. The last verse of a hymn of praise is very appropriately this—"for this God is our God forever and ever; He will be our guide even unto death." This feeling, too, the worshiper of Nature has. He cannot separate himself from that which he contemplates. Though he has the power of gazing upon it as something outside himself, yet he knows himself to be a part of it. The same laws whose operations he watches in the universe he may study in his own body. Heat and light and gravitation govern himself as they govern plants and heavenly bodies. "In him," may the worshiper of this Deity say with intimate conviction, "in him we live and move and have our being." When men whose minds are possessed with a thought like this, and whose lives are devoted to such a contemplation, say, "As for God, we know nothing of him; science knows nothing of him; it is a name belonging to an extinct system of philosophy;" I think they are playing with words. By what name they call the object of their contemplation is in itself a matter of little importance. Whether they say God, or prefer to say Nature, the important thing is that their minds are filled with the sense of a Power to all appearance infinite and eternal, a Power to which their own being is inseparably connected, in the knowledge of whose ways alone are safety and well-being, in the contemplation of which they find a beatific vision.
Well! this God is also the God of Christians. That the God of Christians is something more does not affect this fact. Nature, according to all systems of Christian theology, is God's ordinance. Whether with science you stop short at Nature, or with theology believe in a God who is the author of Nature, in either case Nature is divine, for it is either God or the work of God. This whole domain is common to science and theology. When theology says, Let us give up the wisdom of men and listen to the voice of God, and when science says. Let us give up human authority and hollow a priori knowledge and listen to Nature, they are agreed to the whole extent of the narrower proposition, i. e., theology ought to admit all that science says, though science admits only a part of what theology says. Theology cannot say the laws of Nature are not divine; all it can say is, they are not the most important of the divine laws. Perhaps not, but they gain an importance from the fact that they are laws upon which all can agree. Making the largest allowance for discoveries, about which science may be too confident, there remains a vast mass of natural knowledge which no one questions. This to the Christian is so much knowledge about God, and he ought to rejoice quite as much as the man of science at the rigorous method by which it has been separated from the human prejudice and hasty ingenuity, and delusive rhetoric or poetry, which might have adulterated it. By this means we have been enabled to hear a voice which is unmistakably God's. And if it seems to be God speaking about matters not of the greatest importance, still perhaps it may be as well to listen. So much, at least, reverence seems to dictate; and, if it did not, the urgent necessity for more agreement on fundamental questions would dictate it imperiously.
This train of thought will be followed a little further in future numbers of this magazine.—Macmillan's Magazine.
- This article appeared in Macmillan's Magazine under the title of "Natural Religion."