Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/December 1875/The Deeper Harmonies of Science and Religion IV

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AT the outset I drew a distinction between theology and religion. Theology I considered to be the intellectual or scientific knowledge of God, religion the imaginative or sympathetic knowledge of him. After examining, then, to what extent theology is modified by the omission of the supernatural source of knowledge, after showing that it is in no way destroyed, since it has always been of the essence of theology to inquire what is the relation of the universe to human ideals—and this inquiry remains legitimate, necessary, and all-important, whether we appeal to natural or supernatural evidence—I pass on to consider the modification produced by the same omission in religion. With what feelings should we regard God contemplated only in Nature?

It will be evident, from what was said at the close of the last chapter, that the common impressions about the worship of Nature are quite mistaken. It is vaguely imagined that the worship of Nature is neither more nor less than classical paganism, and that to adopt it would be to revive the "golden years" Shelley sings of, to substitute a Madre Natura for the Christian Church, and Pan or Apollo for Christ. This is a misconception of precisely the same sort as that which regards Nature as pitiless and inhuman. Let us always remember that Nature, as we are using that most ambiguous of words, is opposed simply to the supernatural. Sometimes, as I pointed out, it is opposed to man. When paganism is said to be a worship of Nature, the word is used in a third sense, and one somewhat indeterminate. It is opposed rather to civilization. Paganism did not confine itself to the worship of inanimate Nature. It deified, to be sure, the sun and moon, the sky, the morning and evening star, and all the principal phenomena of inanimate Nature. But it worshiped also certain deities who were supposed to preside over human life, powers of birth, marriage, and death, protectors of tribes and cities, powers of war and commerce, powers of the human mind. When we call it Nature-worship, therefore, we are not using the word Nature simply as opposed to man. But it so happened, we may say quite accidentally, that in its worship of the phenomena of man paganism paused abruptly. The worshiping disposition in the ancient nations decayed as society advanced; they ceased to increase their Pantheon as human phenomena became known to them. The consequence is, that the deities that have to do with human life in paganism concern only what is most elementary and primitive in human life. To people in the tribal stage paganism would have seemed to embrace the whole of humanity as well as inanimate Nature. But when nations had left that stage far behind them, when they had devised complicated politics, and invented arts and sciences, paganism still remained in its old condition. It did not progress, and in the last ages of the ancient world the traditional religions reflected the image of a much simpler time. This in reality deprived them of all influence except with the rural population, but at the same time it gave them a charm to all those who were influenced by that reaction against civilization and progress which is always going on. The same charm is felt by us when we look back upon paganism. When we see statues of Pan or Faunus, when we read Homer, we feel the fascination of naïveté and simplicity. And to express what we feel we fall back upon the unfortunate and overworked word Nature. We say these old pagans worshiped Nature, meaning apparently to say that their thoughts and feelings had not been much modified by the influence of thinkers, inventors, systematizers, that in fact their minds were in a childlike state, and had the freshness and joyousness of childhood.

Evidently Nature here is not in any way opposed to the supernatural. The supernatural could not enter into any creed more than it entered into the creeds of these so-called worshipers of Nature.

And, If the supernatural were omitted from our present creeds, the residuum would not be classical paganism. It would be something like what paganism would have been if religious feeling had not been weakened by the growing complication of human life. Had men's minds continued as religious in the age of Aristotle as they were in the days of Homer, it is not difficult to see how paganism would have developed. The great product of civilization is the development in men's minds of the feeling of justice, duty, and self-sacrifice. These new feelings, then, would have embodied themselves in new deities, or new conceptions of old ones. Paganism in developing would have become moral, and so would have lost all the charm which the moderns, tired, of morality, find in it. And in doing so it would not necessarily have given more weight to the supernatural, and might easily have given less. Notions of duty and morality have no necessary connection with the supernatural. The worship of God in Nature, therefore, the worship of the Being revealed to us by science, would not be a religion without morality, because, however science may repudiate the supernatural, it cannot repudiate the law of duty. To human beings that have reached a certain social stage, duty is a thing quite as real as the sun and stars, and exciting much deeper feelings. In the sense in which we are using the word, duty is a part of Nature. The worship of Nature, therefore, would be no paganism. It would not be mere animal happiness or aesthetic enjoyment of beauty. It would be far more like Christianity. It would be mainly concerned with questions of right and wrong; it would be in almost as much danger as Christianity of running into excesses of introspection and asceticism.

But, now that we are on our guard against this misconception, let us go somewhat further back to inquire what the religion of God in Nature will be. The word religion is commonly and conveniently appropriated to the feelings with which we regard God. But those feelings—love, awe, admiration, which together make up religion—are felt in various combinations for human beings, and even for inanimate objects. It is not exclusively but only par excellence that religion is directed toward God. When feelings of admiration are very strong, they find vent in some act; when they are strong and at the same time serious and permanent, they express themselves in recurring acts, and hence arise ritual and liturgy, and whatever the multitude identifies with religion. But, without ritual, religion may exist in its elementary state, and this elementary state of religion is what may be described as habitual and permanent admiration.

Religious feeling readily connects itself with the supernatural—"Gern wohnt er unter Feen, Talismanen"[2]—but, at the same time, religious feeling can restrain itself, and sometimes even deliberately chooses to restrain itself from all associations of the kind. accordingly, whatever the principal object of religious feeling in a particular case may be, of that object there springs up a natural religion and also a supernatural religion. There have been two classes of religions which have been conspicuous by their difference in the history of mankind. On the one hand, there have been the religions which have found their objects of worship principally in the sensible world, in physical phenomena, and in man considered as a physical phenomenon. On the other hand, there are the religions which contemplate more what is intellectual and moral. The best example of the former class is classical paganism, which, as I pointed out, was arrested in its development at the moment when it began to embrace the moral world; to the other class belong Judaism and Christianity. Now, both these forms of religion may be found connected with the supernatural and also unconnected with it. Classical paganism itself was a supernatural religion. The feelings excited in the Greek by the sight of a tree or a fountain did not end where they began, in admiration, delight, and love; they passed on into miracle. The natural phenomenon was transformed into a marvelous quasi-human being. But the same feelings aroused in the mind of Wordsworth produced a new religion of Nature not less real or intense than that of the ancients, but unconnected with the supernatural. He worships trees and fountains and flowers for themselves and as they are; if his imagination at times plays with them, he does not mistake the play for earnest. The daisy, after all, is a flower, and it is as a flower that he likes best to worship it. "Let good men feel the soul of Nature and see things as they are." In like manner moral religion has taken two forms. Judaism and Christianity are to a certain extent supernatural religions, but rationalistic forms of both have sprung up in which it has been attempted to preserve the religious principle which is at the bottom of them, discarding the supernatural element with which it is mixed. The worship of humanity, which has been springing up in Europe since the middle of the last century, is in a like manner a religion of moral qualities divorced from the supernatural.

If religion really accepts the supernatural even when its object is only isolated physical phenomena or human beings, how much more so when its object is God, whether God be regarded as the Cause of the universe or as the universe itself considered as a unity! Our experience of a limited physical phenomenon may be some measure of its powers; the antecedent improbability of its transcending in a particular case the limit which our experience had led us to put upon our conception of it may be very great. But who can place any limits to Nature or to the universe? We may indeed require rigid proof of whatever transcends our experience, but it is not only Orientals who say that "with God all things are possible;" the most scientific men are the most willing to admit that our experience is no measure of Nature, and that it is mere ignorance to pronounce a priori any thing to be impossible. Accordingly, those religions which have had for their object the unity of the universe, or what we call, par excellence, God, as distinguished from gods many and lords many, have generally been most lavish of miracle. They have delighted to believe in whatever is most improbable, because by doing so they seemed to show how strongly they realized the greatness of their Divinity. Credo quia impossibile is a paradox specially belonging to the religion of God. But, on the other hand, there is nothing in this religion that requires the miraculous. Those who realize the infinity and eternity of Nature most, and who are most prepared to admit that nothing is impossible, may quite well believe at the same time that the laws of Nature are invariable, and may be as skeptical as the most narrow-minded slaves of experience about particular stories of miracle that come before them. Indeed, there is perceptible, both in Judaism and Christianity, along with the fullest and readiest belief in miracle, a certain contempt for those who attach much importance to such occasional exceptions to general law. Prophets and apostles and Christ himself believe one and all that God can and does, at his pleasure, suspend ordinary laws; they believe this as a matter of course, and with a kind of wonder that any one can doubt it; but they hold it rather as a matter of course than as a matter of much importance—though they may hold a particular suspension of law to be very important for the light it throws on the Divine will; and it is evident that the God of their worship is rather the God who habitually maintains his laws than the God who occasionally suspends them. As therefore we found that the physical religion which in paganism existed along with a belief in the supernatural appeared elsewhere divorced from it, and that the Christian religion of humanity reappeared in modern religions divorced from miracle, so we may expect to find somewhere a purely natural religion of God.

I have before asserted that modern science, however contemptuously it may reject the supernatural, has nevertheless both a theology and a God. It has a God because it believes in an Infinite and Eternal Being; it has a theology because it believes in the urgent necessity of obeying his laws and in the happiness that comes from doing so. Is it not equally true that it has or may have a religion? If religion be made of love, awe and admiration, is not Nature a proper object of these as well as of scientific study?

It will be said that the religion of God thus understood is intelligible enough, but has no character of its own by which it may be differenced from the physical and moral religions described above. When we admire a flower we are worshiping Nature, but this is paganism stripped of the supernatural, or Wordsworthianism. When we admire justice or self-sacrifice in any human being, we are again, after the explanation given above, worshiping Nature, but this is Christianity stripped of the supernatural, or the modern religion of humanity. Now, what third kind of religion can there be unless we introduce a third or supernatural order of beings? I answer that the natural religion of God, though closely connected with both of these religions, is nevertheless clearly distinct from them. Its material is certainly the same; it contemplates the same phenomena and no others, but it contemplates them in a different spirit and for a different purpose. The object which excites its admiration may be, as in the former case, a tree, a flower, the sky, or the sea, but the admiration, when aroused, goes beyond the object which aroused it, and fixes upon a great unity, more or less strongly realized, in which all things cohere. It is thus that the view which the man of science takes of any natural object differs from that taken by an uneducated man. The admiration of the latter is, as it were, pagan. It ends in the particular form and color before it. It sees nothing in the object but the object itself. But the eye of science passes entirely beyond the object and sees the law that works in it; instead of the individual it sees the kind, and beyond the kind it sees higher unities in endless scale. What it admires is also in a sense Nature, but it is not Nature as a collective name for natural things, but Nature as the unity of natural things, or, in other words, God. Similar, with feelings less distinct but probably stronger, is the contemplation of Nature in ancient Hebrew poetry, which, when it surveys the great phenomena of the world, instead of considering each by itself in succession, instinctively collects them under a transcendent unity. Instead of saying, "How spacious the floor of ocean, how stately the march of the clouds across heaven, how winged the flight of the wind!" the Hebrew poet says, "Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters, who maketh the clouds his chariot, and walketh upon the wings of the wind."

We see, then, that human admiration, when it organizes itself in religion, may take three forms and not two only. Not only may it fix itself almost exclusively upon sensible phenomena and become paganism, or turn away from the sensible world to contemplate moral qualities as in Christianity, but also it may fix itself not upon the phenomena themselves, but upon a unity of them. The simplest form of this religion of unity is, I suppose, Mohammedanism, which not only contemplates a unity of the world, but takes scarcely any interest in the phenomena themselves, the unity of which it contemplates. Lost in the idea of the greatness of God, it loses its interest in the visible evidences of his greatness; but in most cases this religion of unity is combined with one or both of the other religions. The unity worshiped is not an abstract unity, but a unity either of the physical or of the moral world, or of both. In paganism the physical world is not worshiped simply for itself, but a feeble attempt is made to establish some unity among its phenomena by setting up a supreme Jove over the multitude of deities. In the moral religions the tendency to unity is still stronger, so much so that it may seem wrong to class, as we have done, Judaism and Christianity among religions of humanity rather than religions of God. They are, in fact, both at once, and the former at least is primarily a religion of God, and only secondarily a religion of humanity. It is because the worship of humanity in them, rather than the worship of Deity, determines their specific character, because they conceive Deity itself as a transcendent humanity, or as united with humanity; it is not because Deity plays a less, but because humanity plays a more prominent part in them, that I have chosen to name them rather from humanity than from Deity.

When, therefore, modern systematizers, in endeavoring to organize a religion which should exclude the supernatural, have extracted out of Christianity a religion of humanity, and have rejected as obsolete whatever in it had relation to Deity, they have not been wrong in taking what they have taken, though wrong in leaving what they have left. Deity is found in other religions besides Christianity, and in some religions, e. g., in Islamism, is not a whit less prominent than in Christianity; what is characteristic of the Christian system is its worship of humanity. How great a mistake, nevertheless, is made when it is supposed that Deity ought to be removed out of our religious systems, or that the rejection of supernaturalism in any way involves the dethronement of Deity or the transference to any other object of the unique devotion due to him, I shall show immediately; but what I have said about those inferior forms of religion which have not God for their object suggests another observation before we pass to consider the religion of God.

  1. From a series of papers, in Macmillan's Magazine, on "Natural Religion."
  2. Loves to dwell amid fairies and talismans.