Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/February 1883/Natural Religion I




In estimating the importance of the new work by the author of "Ecce Homo," it will help us to pass shortly in review the religious history of the last thirty years. We shall better understand the nature of the epoch in which we are living, and be able to appreciate how far the author of "Natural Religion" is justified in offering what appears at first sight a one-sided eirenicon. In my review I will begin from the year 1850, not only because it is a convenient starting-point as the half-century, but because it is marked by the publication of Tennyson's "In Memoriam," a poem which, in its own day, appeared to many people, like Pope's "Essay on Man" a century before, a convincing answer to the cavils of free-thinkers. That its influence even at the time was overrated will appear certain, when we consider the group of works among which it appeared. In the same year were published Carlyle's "Latter-Day Pamphlets," containing protests so often repeated by the prophet-voice of the nineteenth century against the current state of thought in politics and religion; "Phases of Faith," by the younger of the two gifted brothers, of whom the elder took refuge in the Church of Rome, the other in an extreme form of skepticism, as the logical result of Protestantism. Next year came Carlyle's "Life of John Sterling," revealing the hollowness of Coleridge's religious compromises; and Greg's epoch-making work, finally revealing for scientific minds the small basis of the entire "Creed of Christendom." But, perhaps, Matthew Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna," which appeared in 1853, best enables us to appreciate the religious state of the younger generation. The soul of man hangs like a mirror, blown upon by every wind, and—

"A thousand glimpses wins,
And never sees a whole."

Man is the sport of the gods, man—

"Who knows not what to believe,
Since he sees nothing clear,

And dare stamp nothing false where he finds nothing sure."

The gospel of the writer is that of Stoicism:

"Once read thy own breast right,
And thou hast done with fears;
Man gets no other light,
Search he a thousand years."

He repudiates all compromises such as that which had been offered by "In Memoriam":

"Born into life!—who lists,
May what is false hold dear,
And for himself make mists
Through which to see less clear;

The world is what it is, for all our dust and din.


"Streams will not curb their pride,
The just man not to entomb,
Nor lightnings go aside
To give his virtues room;

Nor is that wind less rough which blows a good man's barge.


"Fools! That in man's brief term
He can not all things view,
Affords no ground to affirm
That there are gods who do;

Nor does being weary prove that he has where to rest."

The impression one gets from such a poem is one of despair; the agnostic tone is quite as pronounced as that of any writer at the present day; but there is much less hope, no outlook into the future, no talk of the future destiny of humanity, which, however vague and dreamy, is better than the dead level of an agnostic introspection. And yet this poem was written by one whose contemporary writings are quite free from this despairing tone, who has faith in a tendency not ourselves, and believes that we can learn something of it from the Bible and the best literature of all ages. This change in tone, which is not peculiar to Matthew Arnold, I attribute to a great extent to the new vistas opened up by the school of evolutionists, and by the writers who have drawn attention off mere umbilicular contemplation such as Morris, Rossetti, and Swinburne. We have accordingly to trace in the succeeding years the rise of new schools of thought, as well as the several attempts of religious writers to accommodate traditional religion to the new light thrown upon it. This will take us through twenty years, up to the memorable years 1873-'74, when the different schools came into open antagonism.

To trace out the different lines of thought with any fullness would require a separate study; as I am simply passing over the ground with the view of setting a single book in a clearer light, I must content myself with mentioning the names of a few leading works, with their dates. The rise of the evolution school was heralded in 1845 by Robert Chambers's "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation," an expansion of the Lamarckian theories of natural development. But the writings by which what we now mean by evolution were popularized fall within the present period. "The Origin of Species" appeared in 1859, Spencer's "First Principles" in 1862, Huxley's "Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature" in 1863, and "The Descent of Man" in 1871. With this school also we may class Max Müller's "Lectures on the Science of Language," which appeared in 1861, as tending to widen the conception of evolution. Of the effects of this new view of life upon religious thought it is not too much to say that, if it cut the ground from under the intuitionalist theory of right and wrong, and of the origin of conscience, to the skeptic in regard to supernaturalism it gave a prospect and a future glorious with hope. To many minds the ascent of man serves a more glorious conception than his fall. The door was opened for a pantheistic view of the universe, and this tendency was enhanced by the influence of Ruskin, who was already writing in 1850. George Eliot, who has exercised a distinct influence upon the age by popularizing the ethical side of positivism, and showing men that it gives a work-a-day theory of life, began to publish in the year 1858.

What has been called the fleshly, and more recently the æsthetic school of poetry, is best represented by the names of Swinburne, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Swinburne's works are too numerous to mention, but his "Chastelard" appeared in 1865, his "Poems and Ballads," of unhappy notoriety, in the following year; Morris's "Defense of Guinevere," his first work, appeared in 1858, his "Earthly Paradise" in 1868; Rossetti's first celebrated volume of "Poems" appeared in 1870. Of this school it may be said that, without being brought into actual contact with supernaturalism, the tendency of their writings was to take men's thoughts into a different field, to consecrate the passions and sentiment, to revive with a difference the old Greek modes of looking at man and his destiny in the world. With this school we must rank the important name of Walt Whitman, whose first series of "Leaves of Grass" came in 1855. Of course his influence was more catholic than that of the fleshly school, properly so called, his aim being the apotheosis of man as man. Three lines from "One's Self I Sing" reveal to us clearly his point of view:

"Of physiology from top to toe I sing;
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the Muse—I say the
form complete is worthier far;
The female equally with the male I sing."

Of what may be called skeptical writers, i. e., writers who treated different branches of study in a manner hostile to Christianity, and with their eyes distinctly turned upon it, it will be sufficient to mention Buckle, whose "History of Civilization" appeared in 1857; Draper, whose "Intellectual Development of Europe" was published in 1861; and Lecky, whose "Rationalism" appeared in 1865, and his work on "European Morals" in 1869. Dr. Jowett's "Plato" appeared in 1871, the introductions to the separate dialogues of which were a distinct contribution to contemporary thought, while they are valuable as a fair index to the results of moderate liberalism of the time in different fields. Thus, in his introduction to the "Republic," he defines the modern notion of God as an "intelligent principle of law and order in the universe, embracing equally man and nature." Spencer's "Study of Sociology" appeared in 1872, and the "Fortnightly Review" was started in 1865. In tracing the line of thought taken by writers more immediately concerned with the book before us, we come first to "Essays and Reviews" in 1860. Archdeacon Pratt had published, in 1856, an attempt to prove that Scripture and science were not at variance. The publication of the volume of "Essays and Reviews" may be taken as a symptom that intellectual Churchmen felt that the old stand was no longer possible; that concessions must be made to modern science, modern investigations, and modern thought; that the proper way to judge of an ancient work was to interpret it by the light of its own day. These views were to some extent popularized by the first series of Stanley's "Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church," appearing in 1863, the year following the publication of Bishop Colenso's work on the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua. Stanley's preface tells us that it is his intention "to present the main characters and events of sacred narrative in a form as nearly historical as the facts of the case will admit"; to set the characters and institutions of the time in a clearer light; "to recognize in sacred subjects their identity with our own flesh and blood," at the same time not "wishing to efface the distinction which good taste, no less than reverence, will always endeavor to preserve between the Jewish and other histories." "Ecce Homo" appeared in 1865. It was an attempt to base religion upon the enthusiasm of humanity as preached by the man Christ, and was succinctly characterized at the time by a pious nobleman as "vomited from the jaws of hell." The author, now universally recognized as Professor Seeley, promised a supplementary volume of applications of his theory. This has never appeared, and we may look upon the present work as the fulfillment of his promise. The wide difference between them must be ascribed to the progress since made by liberal thought. Still, "Ecce Homo" was regarded with fear and disgust in its day by the orthodox, among all sections of Christianity, and at once provoked an eloquent and, from Professor Seeley's point of view, unanswerable rejoinder in Dr. Liddon's Bampton Lectures "On the Divinity of Christ," delivered at Oxford in the following year.

We now come to the two celebrated years 1873 and 1874—years of open utterance on all sides, and which we may look upon as the crisis of the revolution of thought. In these years appeared the first two volumes of "Supernatural Religion," an elaborate investigation from two points of view into the foundations of Christianity, and Matthew Arnold's "Literature and Dogma," an attempt to rehabilitate Christianity, while openly recognizing the futility of all attempts to base it upon miracles or the supernatural. Christianity was to remain in force, but without a personal God. At such a moment, Leslie Stephen's direct question, "Are we Christians?" came home to us with full force. It was anticipated, by one year, by the amusing brochure entitled "Modern Christianity, a Civilized Heathenism." In the same year Max Müller carried the critical spirit of science into religion itself in his "Introduction to the Science of Religion." Meanwhile, there appeared a beautiful volume, carefully printed upon exquisite paper, containing "Studies in the History of the Renaissance," which their author, Mr. Pater, concluded with the following words: "We are all condamnes, as Victor Hugo says, 'Les hommes sont tous condamnés à morte avec des sursis indéfines'; we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest in art and song. For our one chance is in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. High passions give one this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, political or religious enthusiasms, or the 'enthusiasm of humanity.' Only, be sure it is passion, that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art's sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."

In 1874 appeared Green's "Short History of the English People," of the importance of which I shall speak presently; Mill's "Autobiography," revealing the blameless life of a true humanitarian who had lived without a God, in the ordinary acceptation of the term; and George Eliot's "Jubal, and other Poems." In this volume the religious aspirations of the new faith were thus given poetical expression:

"O may I join the choir invisible,
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity.
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self;
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And, with their mild persistence, urge men's search
To vaster issues. So to live is heaven."

In this year, too, at Belfast, Professor Tyndall delivered, before the British Association, his celebrated address, in which, "abandoning all disguise," he says that "the confession that I feel bound to make before you is, that I prolong the vision backward across the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern, in that matter which we, in our ignorance and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of every form and quality of life."[1] The discovery, if it may be called so, was not exactly a new one. The same avowal had been made, more than twenty years before, by W. B. Carpenter, but the rise of the evolution school in the interim caused an importance to attach to Professor Tyndall's utterances that has not attended upon Dr. Carpenter's.[2] The address at once took rank as the high-water mark of materialism. Lastly, in the same year, we come to Greg's "Warnings of Cassandra," and to a work which, together with this, is symptomatic of the feelings of the next few years—Hartmann's "Philosophy of the Unknowable."[3]

The prevailing tone, after the battle had been fought, was one of despair and pessimism. Science had won the victory, but thoughtful minds, even on that side, saw that it might be possible to push it too far. Hence came attempts at compromise, the cry for which went up, in 1874, from John Morley, the editor of the "Fortnightly Review," the chief Positivist organ. Still, for the present, the general tone was disheartening in the extreme, and its influence is traceable in many ways. Poetry has been distinctly deteriorated by it. In politics it led to a temporary reaction in favor of conservatism. Life appeared to be, as Pope had said, a mighty maze, but the plan was lost. Instead of the authoritative tone of the Church, the voices of different schools were heard bidding against one another for adherents. This condition of affairs was cleverly brought home to readers by "The New Republic," Mr. Mallock's first work, appearing in 1878. To minds distracted by the hubbub of opinion, and despairing of certainty elsewhere, the only sure refuge again appeared to lie in the Church of Rome, and this, as the only alternative for the gospel of Positivism, was offered in the book entitled "Is Life worth Living?" which was published in 1879. "The Romance of the Nineteenth Century" appeared two years afterward. Such a temporary depression of tone was a natural result of the conflict through which the age had been passing.

But other and more important results followed. It is unequivocally recognized, by most writers of eminence, that Christianity can no longer look to its supernatural elements for support—nay, more, that the excellence of some parts of its morality can not even receive credence for their inferential elements; at least they have to be definitely discarded as a necessary part of faith, if Christianity intends to bid for the allegiance of the intellectual portion of mankind. It is therefore ridiculously wide of the truth to boast, as the clerical mind is inclined to do, that Christianity has weathered the storm, that she will pass into the twentieth century unaltered in essentials. This is fully recognized by the author of "Natural Religion." "The Church," he writes, "has now entered upon that phase when minds of the higher order are seldom found to receive its ancient dogmas with complete conviction, when they do not altogether belong to it, even when they most admire it, and most appreciate the service it has rendered to mankind. It has reached this rather advanced stage of decline, and has left quite behind it the first stage when individual disbelievers were indeed numerous enough, but still minds disposed to religion, even when they were minds of the highest order, were troubled with no skepticism that they could not overcome." The fact is, that the Church does not pretend to be the interpreter of human society, to open to us the vista of the future, or to give us guidance upon matters of contemporary importance. "We know," writes our author, "that for the most part it is occupied with quite other topics. To most of its utterances the world listens in half-contemptuous silence, feeling that it is useless to controvert the propositions laid down, and that no results would follow from admitting them. The propositions are archaic; they show that the Church once understood its function, and discharged it efficiently."

The natural result has been, that its authority has been quietly disregarded by all branches of investigation. Before 1873 and 1874, hostility to orthodox Christianity was more or less openly shown by the chief writers of science, history, art, morals, etc., but since these years this tone has been generally abandoned for one of supreme indifference, or of perfect fairness. The tone of the "Fortnightly Review," which had led the van in the attack on the Church, has visibly changed, and has thrown aside the unfairness and Positivist provincialism, which was its note ten years ago. Thus, again, instead of covertly sneering at the marvels of the Bible and Christianity, as Grote and Buckle loved to do, Mr. Green finds no difficulty, in his "History," in fully acknowledging all that the Church had done for the civilization of England. But this does not close his eyes to the facts of the case, or prevent his recognizing, in the Bible literature, a heterogeneous collection of "legends and annals, war-song and psalm, state-rolls and biographies, etc." It should be remembered that Mr. Green's history was intended for the student; that it was written by a clergyman, and one who had been an earnest worker in the purlieus of eastern London; and, lastly, that this free tone in regard to matters of religion, a tone that recognized with equal impartiality Protestant and Catholic, has never been objected to as unfitting the book for general use. Thus we may say that history has been emancipated. The revision testifies to the emancipation of scholarship.

Another important result of the battle of opinion was the perfect freedom with which different writers now expressed themselves, as well as in the toleration that they mutually extended to one another. As it were to mark this era, a new review was started in March, 1877, as a perfectly free medium for all shades of honest opinion. A poem was contributed by the poet-laureate as a preface, which we quote as distinctive of the "Nineteenth Century":

"Those that of late had fleeted far and fast
To touch all shores, now leaving to the skill
Of others their old craft seaworthy still,
Have chartered this; where, mindful of the past,
Our true co-mates regather round the mast,
Of diverse tongue, but with a common will
Here, in this roaring moon of daffodil
And crocus, to put forth and brave the blast;
For some, descending from the sacred peak
Of hoar, high-templed Faith, have leagued again
Their lot with ours to rove the world about;
And some are wilder comrades, sworn to seek
If any golden harbor be for men
In seas of Death and sunless gulfs of Doubt."

But on two sides something more is observable. Art and science not only claim to be completely free from the power of Church dictation; they have set up, so to speak, an opposition Church. Science was emancipated in 1874, it has since turned its attention to the construction of a scientific morality. The "Data of Ethics" appeared in 1879, but long before this science had shown itself capable of rising to the enthusiasm of a religion, and we have to thank the author of "The New Paul and Virginia" for laboriously collecting the utterances of men of science upon this point in the notes appended to that work. It is true that all men of science do not associate their worship with the name of God, but we are fully in agreement with our author when he writes: "By what names 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 appearances 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."

The claims of art to an independent position, to a right to the undivided attention of its votaries, are no less unequivocal. When W. Morris published his "Earthly Paradise" in 1868, he prefaced it with an "Apology," in which he acknowledged the littleness of his undertaking, almost lamenting that he could not rise to higher work:

"Of heaven or hell I have no power to sing,
I can not ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day."

He only professes to tell

". . . a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay."

I have quoted Mr. Pater's claim for art put forth in 1878. Listen, lastly, to the terms in which the newest singer bids his soul abandon the secular world:

". . . O come out of it,
Come out of it, my soul, thou art not fit
For this vile traffic-house, where day by day
Wisdom and reverence are sold at mart,
And the rude people rage with ignorant cries
Against an heritage of centuries.
It mars my calm: wherefore in dreams of Art
And loftiest culture I would stand apart,
Neither for God, nor for his enemies."

To sum up the intellectual and religious revolution of the last few years: Matthew Arnold's poetry aptly represents the tone of mind of advanced religious thinkers during the fifties. Looked at from the orthodox stand-point, his poems are intended, like the reasonings of the devils in hell upon theological problems, to—

". . . arm the obdured breast
With stubborn patience as with triple steel."

Matthew Arnold aptly expresses his own point of view when he speaks of himself as

"Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head."

or, again

". . . The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled,
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world."

Meanwhile, as the old faith began to lose power, art, science, and the religion of humanity stepped forward into prominence, at first in antagonism to Christianity. The struggle became critical during the years 1873-'74, and left a feeling of despair and pessimism for a time on men's minds. But with time this feeling has begun to wear off, and we see that the allegiance formerly claimed for the old theology is claimed now by its rivals. The interval of pessimism, the period of dormant anarchy, was marked by many gropings in different directions. Scholars drew attention to the great rivals of Christianity, to Judaism, to Mohammedanism, to Buddhism. To this we owe in part such books as "Daniel Deronda" (1876) and "The Light of Asia" (1879). The theories of great philosophers of the past began to be studied with fresh attention, especially the writings of Plato and Aristotle, of Berkeley, Spinoza, and Kant. Even spiritualism and the doctrine of metempsychosis were found to give the support needed to unscientific souls who lacked the courage to stand by the old orthodoxy which the Zeit-geist had condemned.

The need of some reconstruction was felt even by philosophy's of the new school. Spencer propounded an evolution theory of morals in his "Data of Ethics" (1879); and George Eliot, as a reconstructive radical, in her "Theophrastus Such" (1879), drew attention to the fact that "ideas acquired long ago reappear as the sequence of an awakened interest or a line of inquiry which is really new to us." As stable elements of the religion of the future, she pointed to the love of ideals, and specially to the constantly renewed ideal self; to the value of external nature, as exercising a soothing influence, of family life, and of national sentiments. We are thus led to the work before us. Its importance is due to its recognition of the facts which this short review of the religious thought of the last thirty years has brought into prominence and it takes up and makes a part of its system the ideas on culture and civilization, which Matthew Arnold has reiterated at intervals, ever since his publication in 1869 of "Culture and Anarchy." I have called it a system, and herein lies its weakness as well as its strength. "Theophrastus Such" was a distinct contribution to the thought of the time, hut, through not aiming at the completeness of a system, it failed to secure the attention which would have revealed its short-comings. Many parts of "Natural Religion" are doubtless of great value, but what a writer does not seem to have great faith in personally is not likely to be warmly welcomed by outsiders.

[To be continued.]

  1. Quoted from the original, as reprinted in "Nature." The passage is reworded in the published address. The variations between the two arc curious, and well worthy of study.
  2. For Dr. Carpenter's words, see his article upon "Life," in Todd's "Cyclopædia of Anatomy and Physiology," vol. iii, p. 150. This work appeared in 1847. He refers, in a foot-note, to an earlier essay, on the laws regulating vital and physical phenomena, in the "Edinburgh Philosophical Journal," April, 1838.
  3. I may here remark that I have confined my review to works in the English language. Many foreign names, such as Strauss and Haeckel, will occur to every one. To have extended my review to these would have required a separate essay.