Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/September 1875/The Deeper Harmonies of Science and Religion III
|THE DEEPER HARMONIES OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION.|||
PUTTING aside, then, for the present, supernaturalism and all those views of God which are distinctively Christian, we find a theology in which all men, whether they consider it or not, do actually agree—that which is concerned with God in Nature. I do not here raise the question of causes or laws; let it be allowed that Nature is merely the collective name of a number of coexistences and sequences, and that God has no meaning different from Nature. Let all this be allowed, or let the contrary of this be allowed. Such controversies may be raised about the human as well as about the Divine Being. Some may consider the human body as the habitation of a soul distinct and separable from it; others may refuse to recognize any such distinction; some may maintain that man is merely the collective name for a number of processes; some may consider the human being as possessing a free-will and as being independent of circumstances; others may regard him as the necessary result of a long series of physical influences. All these differences may be almost as important as they seem to the disputants who are occupied about them, but after all they do not affect the fact that the human being is there, and they do not prevent us from regarding him with strong feelings. The same is true of the Divine Being. Whatever may be questioned, it is certain that we are in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Being; except through some of those exceptional perversions of the mind which I described in the last chapter, we cannot help the awe and admiration with which we contemplate him; we cannot help recognizing that our well-being depends on taking a right view of his nature.
There are two ways in which the mind apprehends any object, two sorts of knowledge which combine to make complete and satisfactory knowledge. The one may be called theoretic or scientific knowledge; the other practical, familiar, or imaginative knowledge. The greatest trial of human nature lies in the difficulty of reconciling these two kinds of knowledge, of preventing them from interfering with one another, of arranging satisfactory relations between them. In order of time the second kind of knowledge has the precedence, and avails itself of this advantage to delay and impede the arrival of the first kind. Before the stars, the winds, the trees and plants, could be grasped scientifically, and the laws which govern them studied, they had been grasped, and as it were appropriated, by the human mind experimentally and imaginatively. The latter kind of knowledge was in some respects better than the former. It was more intimate and realized, so that, as far as it was true, it was more available. For practical purposes, accurate scientific knowledge of a thing is seldom sufficient. To obtain complete practical command over it you must take possession of it with the imagination and feelings as well as the reason, and it will often happen that this imaginative knowledge, helped very slightly by scientific knowledge, carries a man practically further than a very perfect scientific knowledge by itself. Witness the instinctive, as we say, and unanalyzable skill sometimes possessed by savages. Moreover, this kind of knowledge is more attractive and interesting, and so has a more powerful modifying influence upon its possessor, than the other kind, for the simple reason that it takes hold of the most plastic side of his nature. But just because it is so fascinating, and is at the same time not by itself trustworthy, it has certain mischievous consequences when it comes, as it generally does, first. Then it fills the mind with prejudices, hasty misconceptions, which, seizing upon the imagination, are stereotyped in the form of superstitions; and these sometimes exercise by themselves a most pernicious influence, and in any case close the mind against the entrance of the sounder scientific knowledge. When this imaginative medley of observation and prejudice has long had possession, science arrives. Then follows a contest between the two kinds of knowledge, in which the human being suffers much. Truth cannot in the long-run be resisted, and so, after whatever defense, the fortress is carried and the phantom garrison of superstition is driven out. The mind passes now under a new set of impressions, and places itself in a new relation to the universe. Its victory over superstition has been won by placing a careful restraint upon imagination and feeling. In order not to be misled by feeling, it has been forced artificially to deaden feeling; lest the judgment should be overwhelmed by the impressiveness of the universe, it arms itself with callousness; it turns away from Nature the mobile side, and receives the shock upon the adamantine shield of the skeptical reason. In this way it substitutes one imperfect kind of knowledge for another. Before, it realized strongly, if that expression is clear, but scarcely analyzed at all; now, it analyzes most rigidly, but ceases in turn to realize. As the victory of the scientific spirit becomes more and more decided, there passes a deep shudder of discomfort through the whole world of those whose business is with realizing, and not with testing, knowledge. Religion is struck first, because the whole work of realizing presupposes faith, and yet, as the testing process comes late, faith is almost always more or less premature. But poetry and art suffer in their turn. How full has recent poetry been of this complaint! One poet complains that "science withdraws the veil of enchantment from Nature;" one exclaims that "there was an awful rainbow once in heaven," but that science has destroyed it: another declares that "we murder to dissect," that we should not be always seeking, but use "a wise passiveness" in the presence of Nature; another that "Nature made undivine is now seen slavishly obeying the law of gravitation;" another buries himself in past ages "when men could still hear from God heavenly truth in earthly speech, and did not rack their brains."
And yet to complain of the march of the scientific spirit seems as idle as to complain of the law of gravitation itself. Influenced, some by a deep faith in truth, a faith, I mean, that human well-being must depend ultimately on truth; others by a fanatical truth-worship, determined to set up their idol even "amid human sacrifice and parents' tears;" others by a scientific esprit de corps which hates religion as belonging to a rival corporation; others by that self-importance which is gratified by inflicting pain so much more than by giving pleasure; others by the tyrant's delight in having discovered a new and exquisite torture—influenced, in short, by all the mixed motives which have ever urged on a great destructive movement, the iconoclasts pursue their course. But we may look forward to a time when this transition shall be over, and when a new reconciliation shall have taken place between the two sorts of knowledge. In that happier age true knowledge, scientific, not artificially humanized, will reign without opposition, but, the claims of science once for all allowed, the mind will also apprehend the universe imaginatively, realizing what it knows.
That kind of imaginative eclipse which is produced by the shadow of science passing over any natural object has affected in turn the phenomena of Nature, taken separately, and man and God. The "fair humanities of old religion," which found objects of love in trees and streams, and filled the celestial map with fantastic living shapes—all this has long ago disappeared. More recently man has been subjected to the analyzing process. The mechanical laws which were traced in the physical world, it was long hoped, would never suffice to explain the human being; he at least would remain always mysterious, spiritual, sacred. But nothing stops science; hesitating between curiosity that drags him on and awe that holds him back, vexed not to know, yet half ashamed of knowing, man presses on into every sanctuary. He begins now to reckon his own being among things more than half explained; nerve-force he thinks is a sort of electricity; man differs greatly, indeed, but not generically, from the brutes. All this has for the time at least the effect of desecrating human nature. To the imagination human nature becomes a thing blurred and spoiled, not really because the new view of it is in itself degrading, but because the imagination had realized it otherwise, and cannot in any short time either part with the old realizing or perfect a new one. Lastly, Science turns her smoked eye-glass upon God, deliberately diminishing the glory of what she looks at that she may distinguish better. Here, too, she sees mechanism where will, purpose, and love, had been supposed before; she drops the name God, and takes up the less awful name of Nature instead.
It is in this last case that the desecration produced by science is most painfully felt. This is partly, of course, because the sacredness violated was greatest here; but there is also another reason. Science cannot easily destroy our feeling for human beings. We are in such close contact with our own kind, our imagination and affections take such fast hold of our fellow-men, as to defy physiology. If it were otherwise we should want a word—Ananthropism—to answer to atheism. Even as it is the thing is occasionally to be seen. Among medical students there are not a few ananthropists, that is, men in whom human affections have not been strong enough to resist the effect of science in lowering the conception of humanity. But in general the imagination triumphs in this case over the reason. In the case of the physical world it is otherwise. This, for the majority of men, is, I fancy, almost completely desecrated, so that sympathy, communion with the forms of Nature, is pretty well confined to poets, and is generally supposed to be an amiable madness in them. But then this was not done by science, it had been done before by monkish Christianity. Chaucer complains, hundreds of years before the advent of physical science, of the divorce that had been made between the imagination and physical nature—"But now may no man see none elves mo." It was owing, according to him, to the preachings and bannings of "limitours and other holy frères." Nature had been made not merely a dead thing, but a disgusting and hideous thing, by superstitions of imps, witches, and demons; so much so that Goethe celebrates science as having restored Nature to the imagination and driven away the Walpurgisnacht of the middle ages; and, indeed, by turning attention upon the natural world, by bringing a large number of people to take careful notice of its beauties, science may have given back to the imagination, in this department, as much as it has taken away.
But the conception of God is so vast and elevated that it always slips easily out of the human mind. The task of realizing what is too great to be realized, of reaching with the imagination and growing with the affections to a reality almost too great for the one, and almost too awful for the other, is in itself exceptionally difficult. To do this, and yet at the same time carefully to restrain the imaginations and affections as science prescribes, is almost impossible; yet those who perpetually study Nature, unless they specialize themselves too much, will always in some sense feel the presence of God. The unity of what they study will sometimes come home to them and give a sense of awe and delight, if not of love. But upon those who do not study Nature the advance of science can have no other effect than to root out of their minds the very conception of God, The negative effect is not counterbalanced by any positive one. With them, if the supernatural person whose will holds the universe together is denied, the effect is that the universe falls at once to pieces. No other unity takes his place, and out of the human mind there perishes the most elevating thought, and out of human life the chief and principal sacredness. The remedy for this is to be found in the study of Nature becoming universal. Let all be made acquainted with natural laws; let all form the habit of contemplating them, and atheism in its full sense will become a thing impossible, when no mind shall be altogether without the sense, at once inspiring and sobering, of an eternal order.
But these remarks on the difficulty of harmonizing the scientific with the imaginative knowledge of things, are by way of digression. Our business at present is with the fact that knowledge is of these two kinds, and that the complete or satisfactory knowledge of any thing comes from combining them. When the object of knowledge is God, the first kind of knowledge is called theology, and the second may be called religion. By theology the nature of God is ascertained and false views of it eradicated from the understanding; by religion the truths thus obtained are turned over in the mind and assimilated by the imagination and the feelings.
When we hear it said, as it is said so commonly now, that the knowledge of God is impossible to man, and therefore that theology is no true science, of course the word God is used in that peculiar sense of which 1 have spoken above. Nature every one admits that we know or may know; but of any occult cause of phenomena, or of any supernatural being suspending the course of natural laws, it is denied that we can know any thing. But since every sort of theology agrees that the laws of Nature are the laws of God, it is evident that in knowing Nature we do precisely to the same extent know God. I am proposing for the present to treat the words of God and Nature as absolutely synonymous, which up to a certain point every one allows them to be. So long as we do so we are in no danger of trespassing beyond the proper domain of human inquiry; so long as we do so, theology, instead of being additional or antagonistic to science, is merely another name for science itself. Regarded in this way, we may say of God, that so far from being beyond knowledge, be is the one object of knowledge, and that every thing we can know, every proposition we can frame, relates to him. It may seem, however, that little is to be gained from giving this unusual sense to the word theology. If in the ordinary sense it is the name of an imaginary and delusive science, taken in this sense as a synonym for science itself, it is purely useless. By giving the word such an extension, it will be said, you destroy all its force. That we ought to study theology becomes a truism if it means merely that all knowledge is valuable; the old maxim, that in the knowledge of God is life, loses all its grandeur if it is interpreted to mean merely that the more things you know the more dangers you will be in a condition to avoid. Can we not, then, give more precision, more definiteness, to the notion of the knowledge of God?
The notion is to be limited in two ways, one of which has been partially indicated already. The scientific school themselves save us the trouble of explaining the first of these limitations; it is they who, in this age, have made clear to every one the difference between the study of the universe and mere universal study. When they tell us in the very language of theology that all hope and all happiness lies in the knowledge of Nature, that this is a treasure to be valued above rubies and precious stones, how do they limit the word Nature? They mean it certainly to include the whole universe. What is it, then, that they exclude? One would fancy at first sight that they are merely praising knowledge in general, and that they are not particular about kinds of knowledge. Yet we know that they are remarkably exclusive in their notions of knowledge, and that they are as vehement in condemning some sorts as in recommending others. What is there, then, that can possibly be studied besides the universe?
There is something which sets itself up as a just reflection of the universe, and which it is possible to study as if it were the universe itself; that is, the multitude of traditional unscientific opinions about the universe. These opinions are, in one sense, part of the universe; to study them from the historic point of view is to study the universe; but when they are assumed as an accurate reflection of it so as to divert attention from the original, as they are by all the votaries of authority or tradition, then they may be regarded as a spurious universe outside and apart from the real one, and such students of opinion may be said to study and yet not to study the universe.
This spurious universe is almost as great as the genuine one. There are many profoundly learned men whose whole learning relates to it, and has no concern whatever with reality. The simplest peasant who, from living much in the open air, has found for himself, unconsciously, some rules to guide him in divining the weather, knows something about the real universe; but an indefatigable student, who has stored a prodigious memory with what the schoolmen have thought, what the philosophers have thought, what the Fathers have thought, may yet have no real knowledge; he may have been busy only with the reflected universe. Not that the thoughts of dead thinkers stored up in books are not part of the universe as well as wind and rain; not that they may not repay study quite as well; they are deposits of the human mind, and by studying them much may be discovered about the human mind, the ways of its operation, the stages of its development. Nor yet that the thoughts of the dead may not be of the greatest help to one who is studying the universe; he may get from them suggestions, theories which he may put to the test, and thus convert, in some cases, into real knowledge. But there is a third way in which he may treat them which makes books the very antithesis to reality, and the knowledge of books the knowledge of a spurious universe. This is when he contents himself with storing their contents in his mind, and does not attempt to put them to any test, whether from superstitious reverence or from an excessive pleasure in mere language. He may show wonderful ability in thus assimilating books, wonderful retentiveness, wonderful accuracy, wonderful acuteness; nay, if he clearly understands that he is only dealing with opinions, he may do good service in that department, for opinions need collecting and classifying as much as botanical specimens. But one often sees such collectors mistaking opinions for truths, and depending for their views of the universe entirely upon these opinions, which they accept implicitly without testing them. Such men may be said to study, but not to study the universe.
There are other classes of men of whom much the same may be said. The scientific school, when they recommend the study of Nature, do not mean, for example, the mere collecting of facts, however authentic. Nature with them is not a heap of phenomena, but laws discerned in phenomena, and by a knowledge of Nature they mean a just conception of laws much more than an ample store of information about phenomena. Again, in an age like the present, when methods of inquiry have been laid down and tested by large experience, they do not dignify with the name of the study of Nature any investigation, however earnest or fresh, of the facts of the world, which does not conform to these methods, or show reason for not doing so.
Knowledge of Nature understood in this sense, and obtained in this way, is what we are now told is alone valuable—what human happiness depends on. And assuredly it deserves to be called in the strictest sense theology. If God be the Ruler of the world, as the orthodox theology teaches, the laws of Nature are the laws by which he rules it. If you prefer the pantheistic view, they are the very manifestations of the Divine Nature. In any case the knowledge of Nature, if only it be properly sifted from the corrupting mixture of mere opinion, is the knowledge of God. That there may be another and deeper knowledge of God beyond it does not affect this fact.
But is theology a mere synonym for science? If so, the scientific man may fairly say: "I need not concern myself with it; I have already a name for my pursuit which satisfies me; it does not interest me to hear that there is another name which also is appropriate." Is there no special department of science which may be called theological, to distinguish it from the other departments? It is this which so many scientific men now deny. They say there is certainly such a special department, but it is not a department of science, for it lies outside the domain of science. It is concerned with causes, whereas science knows nothing of causes; it is concerned with supernatural phenomena which science puts aside as either impossible or unverified. All that this objection means is, that many theologies have been supernaturalistic, and have been occupied with causes, and that though as a matter of course they have not been exclusively supernaturalistic and occupied with causes, yet they have been so sufficiently to justify us in appropriating the word theology to systems that have these characteristics. To say, then, that theology is a spurious science, is to say that in most theological systems there is an element more or less predominant which is unscientific. But, even if it were convenient to give to this element the name of theology, it would not follow because theology in this sense may be a spurious science—and etymologically theology is the science of God—that therefore the science of God is a spurious one. You may use the word theology in its etymological sense, or you may give it a more special technical sense to suit convenience; but you must not confound the two senses of the word together. As I have said, all science belongs properly to the science of God, and might legitimately be called theology. I believe also that there is a special department of knowledge which, without necessarily concerning itself with the supernatural, or with final causes, might both legitimately and conveniently be called theology.
Considered in its practical bearings upon human life, the study of Nature resolves itself into the study of two things, a force within the human being, and a necessity without him. Life, in short, is a mechanical problem, in which a power is required to be so advantageously applied as to overcome a weight which is greater than itself. The power is the human will, the weight is Nature, the motive of the struggle between them is certain ideals which man instinctively puts before himself—an ideal of happiness, or an ideal of perfection. By means of science he is enabled to apply the power in the most advantageous manner. Every piece of knowledge he acquires helps him in his undertaking. Every special science which he perfects removes a new set of obstacles, procures him a new set of resources. And in his conflict with natural difficulties his energy and hope are in proportion to his power of knowing and measuring the force he has, and the resistance he will meet with. When he is able to measure this precisely, his hope becomes confidence even in circumstances which might seem the most alarming. We allow ourselves to be hurried through the air at the rate of fifty miles an hour, with a noise and impetus appalling to a by-stander, and all the while read or sleep comfortably. Why? Because the forces we have set in motion are all accurately measured, the obstacles to be met fully known. When the measurement is only approximate, there is not confidence, but only hope predominating over fear. The experienced sailor feels this; he trusts himself to the open sea, because he knows that he is pretty well matched against the necessity he provokes, though he cannot know that he is the superior because he can calculate a good many of the dangers, though not all.
This is the case in each of the separate undertakings that make up life. To each of them belongs its appropriate knowledge, upon which our equanimity and repose of mind, as far as the particular undertaking is concerned, depend. But life, taken as a whole, is an undertaking. Life itself has its objects which make it interesting to us, which lead us to bear the burden of it. These objects, like those minor ones, are only to be attained by a struggle between the power Will and the weight Nature, and in this struggle also both energy and success depend upon a certain knowledge which may enable us to apply the power with advantage. But the knowledge required in this case is of a more general kind; it is not a knowledge confined to certain sets of phenomena, and giving us a power correspondingly limited, but it is a general knowledge of the relation in which human life stands to the universe, and of the means by which life may be brought into the most satisfactory adaptation to it. Now, by what name shall we call this knowledge?
Every one has his general views of human life, which are more or less distinct. Upon these general views more than upon any thing else connected with the understanding depends the character of every one's life. Morality is theoretically independent of all such views, but practically and in the long-run it varies with them. What has life to give? How far does it lend itself to our ideals? These are practically questions quite as important to morality as those which lie within the province of morality itself—as the questions, what are or what ought to be our ideals? They are also quite as important to human happiness as all particular measures contrived to increase human happiness. No man fights with any heart if he thinks he has Nature against him. If a man believes that men are not made to be happy, he will lose the energy to do even what can be done for their happiness; he will give up the pursuit of virtue if he meets with more than a certain degree of discouragement in it.
Of an unfavorable view of human life there are three principal consequences—crime, languor, and suicide. The majority of crimes, and still more of meannesses, it seems to me, are not committed from bad intentions, but from a despair of human life. "I am sorry, but I must do it; I am driven to it; everybody has to do it; we must look at things as they are;" these are the reflections which lead men into breaches of morality. "Sic vivitur," says Cicero, selling Tullia. The feeling that life will not allow people to do always what is right, faint perhaps in each individual mind, grows strong when many who share it come together: it grows stronger by being uttered, stronger still by being acted upon; it creates an atmosphere of laxity; morality retires more and more out of view; until the thought of crime itself, and even of enormous crime, becomes familiar, and at last is carried almost unconsciously into act. It is not, then, from want of morality that men do wrong, but from want of another sort of knowledge. They know what is right and what is wrong; it is not from overlooking this distinction that they fall into the wrong, nor would they escape the danger by reflecting upon it ever so much. What determines their action is a belief in some sort of necessity, some fatality with which it is vain to struggle; it is a general view of human life as unfavorable to ideals.
Another such general view of human life produces apathy. A man who has persuaded himself that we are the creatures of circumstances, or that we are the victims of laws with which it is impossible for us to cope, will give up the battle with Nature and do nothing. Perhaps he has his head full of instances of the best endeavors after happiness failing entirely, or by some fatality producing extreme unhappiness; of the purest and noblest labors producing mischief which complete inactivity would have avoided; how Queen Isabella introduced the Inquisition; how Las Casas initiated the slave-trade; how pauperism has been over and over again fostered by philanthropy; how the Prince of Peace himself, according to his own saying, brought a sword upon the earth. He may think that human life, as it runs on naturally, is not a bad thing, but that all attempts to control it or improve it are hopeless; that all high ideals are merely ambitious; that purpose and, still more, system and all sophistication of life are mischievous. And so he may come to renounce all free-will, he may resign himself to the current of ordinary affairs, and become a mere conventionalist, reconciling himself to whatever he does not like, and gradually induced to tolerate with complete indifference the most enormous evils. Against such a perversion of mind morality is no defense; what is needed is not anew view of what ought to be—such a man knows well enough what ought to be—but a new view of what can or may be, a more encouraging view of the universe.
Sometimes the despair of human life goes to a much greater length. Human, life is a game at which we are not forced to play; we may at any time throw up the cards. That only a few do so proves that more or less distinctly most of us have a general view of life not altogether unfavorable. We are for the most part hardly aware of this general view, because it is always the same. We should become painfully aware of it if it were suddenly to change. There is, as it were, a suicide-mark below which our philosophy is always liable to sink. If we came to think life irreconcilably opposed to our ideals, and at the same time were enthusiastically devoted to our ideals, life would become intolerable to us. If our sense of the misery or emptiness of life became for some reason much more keen than it is, life would at last become intolerable to us. With individuals one of these two things is constantly taking place; they might just as well take place with whole societies or nations. Something of the kind happened with the Stoics of the imperial period. Their philosophy was only just above suicide-mark, and was continually dropping below it. In Asia the same is true of whole populations, with whom the value of life has sunk to the very lowest point.
Of all these classes of men we say very justly that they want faith. Their criminality or languor or despair are the consequences of their having no faith. But we sometimes express the same thing differently and say that they have no God, no theology. With our Christian habit of connecting God with goodness and love, we confuse together the notions of a theology and a faith. Let us reflect that it is quite possible to have a theology without having a faith. We may believe in a God, but a God unfavorable, hostile, or indifferent to us. In the same way we may believe in a God neither altogether friendly nor altogether the reverse. The different pagan theologies were of this kind, and even many Christian sects, while nominally holding the perfect benevolence of God, have practically worshiped a Being who in this respect did not differ from the pagan deities.
It would be legitimate to call such general views of the relation of Nature to our ideals by the name of theology in all cases, and not merely those particular general views which are encouraging. If we believe that Nature helps us in our strivings, we have both a theology and a faith; if we believe that Nature is indifferent to us, or hostile to us, we have no faith, but we have still a theology. We have still a definite notion of God's dealings with us. And this use of the word is not only justified by its etymology; it is much more conformable to actual usage. To identify theology with the doctrine of the supernatural is, as I have pointed out, to narrow the meaning of the word unnaturally, and to appropriate it to a particular part of a particular theological system. The practical effect of giving this technical sense to a word which in the common understanding has a much larger meaning, is to produce a deception. When those who reject the supernatural declare theology to be exploded, they are commonly understood to mean that a vast mass of doctrine, partly moral, partly historical, partly physical, in which the supernatural is mixed up, is exploded, whereas all they really say is that just that part is exploded which is supported only by the evidence of the supernatural. In like manner it is but a small part of what is commonly understood by theology that has to do with final causes, and yet those who consider final causes not objects of knowledge are fond of drawing the inference that all theological systems must be systems of spurious knowledge. Sometimes this juggle which is practised with the word theology becomes grotesquely apparent, and a skeptic will tell us in the same breath that theology deals with matters entirely beyond the range of human intellect, and that theology has been refuted by the discoveries of modern science.
The questions which we all understand to be theological are such as these: Is there a reward for virtue? Is there a compensation for undeserved misery? Is there a sure retribution for crime? Is there hope that the vicious man may become virtuous? Are there means by which the pressure upon the conscience produced by wrong-doing may be removed? Are there means by which the mind disposed to virtue may defend itself from temptation? In one word, is life worth having, and the universe a habitable place for one in whom the sense of duty has been awakened? These questions are answered in different ways by different men. But they are answered in some way by all men, even by those who consider themselves to have no theology at all. Christianity is the system which answers them in the most encouraging way. It says that virtue in the long-run will be happy partly in this life, but much more in a life beyond the grave. It says that misery is partly the punishment of crime, partly the probation of virtue; but in the inexhaustible future which belongs to each individual man there are equivalents and over-payments for all that part of it which is undeserved. It says that virtue, when tried, may count upon help, secret refreshings that come in answer to prayer—friends providentially sent, perhaps guardian angels. It says that souls entangled in wrong-doing may raise themselves out of it by a mystic union with Christ, and burdened consciences be lightened by sharing in the infinite merit of his self-sacrifice. If you ask on what so happy and inspiring a belief rests, the evidence produced is in part supernatural.
This is not only a theology but a faith, the most glorious of all faiths. But those who do not heartily share it, or who consciously reject it, yet give some answer to these questions. They have a theology as much as Christians; they must even have a faith of some sort, otherwise they would renounce human life. It may be stated, perhaps, much as follows:
"We have not much reason to believe in any future state. We are content to look at human life as it lies visibly before us. Surveying it so, we find that it is indeed very different from what we could wish it to be. It is full of failures and miseries. Multitudes die without knowing any thing that can be called happiness, while almost all know too well what is meant by misery. The pains that men endure are frightfully intense, their enjoyments for the most part moderate. They are seldom aware of happiness while it is present, so very delicate a thing is it. When it is past they recognize it, or perhaps fancy it. If we could measure all the happiness there is in the world, we should perhaps be rather pained than gladdened by discovering the amount of it; if we could measure all the misery we should be appalled beyond description. When from happiness we pass to the moral ideal, again we find the world disappointing. It is not a sacred place any more than it is a happy place. Vice and crime very frequently prosper in it. Some of the worst of men are objects of enthusiastic admiration and emulation. Some of the best have been hated and persecuted. Much virtue passes away entirely unacknowledged; much flagrant hypocrisy succeeds in its object.
"Still on the whole we find life worth having. The misery of it we find ourselves able to forget, or callously live through. Fortunately we have not imaginations strong enough to realize the sum of it, and we contrive to turn our thoughts away from the subject. And though the happiness is not great, the variety and novelty are. Life is interesting, if not happy. In spite of all the injustice which shocks us in human destiny, the inequality with which fortune is meted out, yet it may be discerned that, at least in the more fortunate societies, justice is the rule and injustice the exception. There are laws by which definite crimes are punished, there is a force of opinion which reaches vaguer offenses, and visits even dispositions to vice with a certain penalty. Virtue is seldom without some reward, however inadequate; if it is not recognized generally or publicly, it finds here and there an admirer, it surrounds itself with a little circle of love; when even this is wanting it often shows a strange power of rewarding itself. On the whole, we are sustained and reconciled to life by a certain feeling of hope, by a belief, resting on real evidence, that things improve and better themselves around us."
This is certainly a very different faith from Christianity. Whether it deserves to be called a faith at all, whether it justifies men in living and in calling others into life, maybe doubted. But it is just as much a theology as Christianity. It deals with just the same questions and gives an answer to them, though a different answer. Both views, whatever may be professed, are views about God. Christianity regards God as a friend; it says that he is Love. The other view regards him as awful, distant, inhuman, yet not radically hostile.
It is said that such vague, general views do not deserve to be called science. This is of course admitted. There exists at the present moment no scientific theology independent of the supernatural and of the search for final causes. But this is not because no such theology can be constructed, but merely because it has not yet been constructed. Evidently it is constructing itself fast. The more men come to know Nature and to feel confidence in their knowledge, the more eagerly they will consider what is the attitude of Nature toward human beings. This question is not one which is in' any way removed from human knowledge, it is not one which it can be considered morbid to betray curiosity about. Yet this is the question of theology. Not only is it the only question with which theology ought to be concerned; it is the only question with which theology ever has been concerned. The theologies of the world are merely different attempts to answer it. If they have for the most part trespassed upon the domain of the supernatural, this has not been because theology is necessarily concerned with the supernatural, but in some cases because the line between the natural and supernatural had not been clearly drawn, in some cases because it was honestly believed that supernatural occurrences had happened and could be substantiated by sufficient evidence, and that such occurrences were calculated to throw new light upon the relation of God to man. If this belief was a delusion, theology must fall back upon the evidence of Nature. She may have to alter her idea of God, she may have to regard him with fear and cold awe as in the days before the Gospel was published; she may cease to be a faith, and may become instead an oppression—a scientific superstition. But theology will remain notwithstanding a perfectly legitimate science, one which, whether under that name or under another, men will always study with an interest they can feel in no other, one which stands in a more intimate relation than any other to morality, and must always be taught in conjunction with morality.
We lay it down, then, that the subject of theology is the relation assumed by the universe toward human ideals, and, as we propose here to waive the question of the supernatural and to treat the universe as consisting solely of the order of Nature, this will be the same thing for our present purpose as the relation assumed by Nature toward human ideals. But here we must beware of a common misconception. It is often said that when you substitute Nature for God you take a thing heartless and pitiless instead of love and goodness. Undoubtedly the God in whom Christians believe has much more of love and goodness than can be discovered in Nature. But when it is said that there are no such qualities in Nature, that Nature consists of relentless and ruthless laws, that Nature knows nothing of forgiveness, and inexorably exacts the utmost penalty for every transgression, a confusion is made between two different meanings which may be given to the word Nature. We are concerned here with Nature as opposed to that which is above Nature, not with Nature as opposed to man. We use it as a name comprehending all the uniform laws of the universe as known in our experience, and excluding such laws as are inferred from experiences so exceptional and isolated as to be difficult of verification. In this sense Nature is not heartless or unrelenting; to say so would be equivalent to saying that pity and forgiveness are in all cases supernatural. It may be true that the law of gravitation is quite pitiless, that it will destroy the most innocent and amiable person with as little hesitation as the wrong-doer. But there are other laws which are not pitiless. There are laws under which human beings form themselves into communities, and set up law courts in which the claims of individuals are weighed with the nicest skill. There are laws under which churches and philanthropical societies are formed, by which misery is sought out and relieved, and every evil that can be discovered in the world is redressed. Nature in the sense in which we are now using the word, includes human nature, and therefore, so far from being pitiless, includes all the pity that belongs to the whole human family, and all the pity that they have accumulated, and, as it were, capitalized in institutions, political, social, and ecclesiastical, through countless generations.
People are misled by the fact that Nature is often used in another sense, and opposed, not to the supernatural, but to man. Nature is, for shortness, often put instead of inanimate Nature. Inanimate Nature is of course pitiless. It consists of laws which, like the law of gravitation, take no note of happiness or misery, virtue or vice. But if we abandoned our belief in the supernatural, it would not be only Nature in this restricted sense that would be left to us; we should not give ourselves over, as it is often rhetorically described, to the mercy of merciless powers—winds and waves, earthquakes, volcanoes, and fire. The God we should believe in would not be a passionless, utterly inhuman power. He would indeed be a God, often neglecting us in our need, a God often deaf to prayers. Nature including humanity would be our God. We should read his character not merely in the earthquake and fire, but also in the still small voice; not merely in the destroying powers of the world, but, as Mohammed said, in the compassion that we feel for one another; not merely in the storm that threatens the sailor with death, but in the life-boat and the Grace Darling that put out from shore to the rescue; not merely in the intricate laws that confound our prudence, but in the science that penetrates them and the art which makes them subservient to our purposes; not merely in the social evils that fill our towns with misery and cover our frontiers with war, but in the St. Francis that makes himself the brother of the miserable, and in the Fox and Penn that proclaim principles of peace.
Let us take one of the principal maxims of the supernatural theology, and observe how it is modified by the rejection of the supernatural. That the just man will assuredly be rewarded with happiness is a maxim resting upon evidence involving the supernatural. It depends upon belief in a God of much more goodness and justice than we can find in Nature; it assumes a future state of which science furnishes no clear evidence. Even when the Psalmist, speaking merely of the present life, wrote, "I have been young, and now am old, and yet saw I never the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread," he perhaps thought of supernatural interpositions by which evil was averted from the just man. Suppose, now, that we repudiate all such beliefs, and confine ourselves strictly to the facts of Nature as we discover them from uniform experience. Let us suppose that the ordinary laws of Nature govern the lot of the just man, and that no exemptions are made in his favor. Do we find that these ordinary laws take no account of his justice, and that his prospects are in no respect different from those of the unjust man? Is Nature, as distinguished from the supernatural, regardless of the distinction between virtue and vice? No doubt Nature is not a perfectly just judge. The just man has misfortunes like the unjust; he may suffer from accident or disease. His justice may be denied; he may suffer the penalties of injustice. All this may happen in particular cases, and yet no one doubts that on the whole the just man reaps a reward for his justice. A very simple law operates to reward him. By his justice he benefits the community, and the community, partly out of gratitude, partly out of an interested calculation, repay him for the service he has done. This law fails of its effect in a good number of cases, but in the majority of cases it does not fail. And when it fails, it seldom fails altogether. There is generally some reward for justice, if not always an adequate reward. Accordingly, not only Christians, or those who believe in something more than Nature, but those whose only God is Nature, and even those whose knowledge of Nature is very superficial, fully recognize that virtue is rewarded. "Honesty is the best policy" has become a proverb, and hypocrites have come into existence hoping to secure the reward without deserving it. We see, then, that those who believe in Nature only may be said to believe not only in a God, but, in some sense, in a personal God. Their God, at least, has so much of personality that he takes account of the distinction of virtue and vice, that he punishes crime, and that he relieves distress.—Macmillan's Magazine.
- From a series of papers in Macmillan's Magazine, on "Natural Religion."