Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/February 1886/Editor's Table



TWO great standards of truth have prevailed in the world; truth according to nature and truth according to theology. Truth according to nature has been held as of little moment, because all its consequences are temporal and transitory; but truth according to theology has been held as of infinite importance, because salvation and the interests of an immortal destiny depended upon it. There was, therefore, but little chance for getting up much interest in the truth of things natural so long as the theological standard of truth was supreme. Galileo made a book stating the evidence of the Copernican system of astronomy according to the facts of nature; but he was summoned before the inquisitorial court to answer the charge of heresy for not judging of the scheme of the planetary motions by the standard of theological authority. Truth according to nature in those days went for very little in comparison with truth according to the supernatural. Theological ideas were in the minds of everybody, were held of transcendent importance, and everything in the shape of new knowledge was first brought to the test of agreement with authorized religious doctrine.

Two or three centuries have made great changes in this matter. The theological standard has been lowered, and a much higher value is set on the truth which agrees with nature; but multitudes of minds are still dominated by theological conceptions, and when new ideas are proposed instead of asking whether they agree with the facts or are true to the nature of things, the first question is, as it was three hundred years ago, How do these ideas agree with prevailing religious opinions? The illustrations of his survival of the theological spirit and methods are still numerous, and a fresh example has recently come to our attention which will well serve to bring out the point we have in view in the present article. It consisted of a vigorous attack on Mr. Beecher's book, "Evolution and Religion," which appeared in the "Commercial Advertiser" of November 20th. The point of view is thoroughly mediæval, the writer seeming to care but very little as to whether evolution is true or not, but to be profoundly concerned about theology's relation to it. The writer condemns Mr. Beecher for refusing to judge of the doctrine of evolution on the basis of its agreement or non-agreement with the old middle-age standards of religious dogma. He says: "Of course Mr. Beecher, like anybody else, may put what construction he pleases on the doctrine of evolution, and he may put a construction to suit him on the doctrines of theology, and in that way patch up a sort of reconciliation: and that is precisely what he does. ... At the same time he contrives a religion which is certainly not the religion of the fathers, or of the martyrs, or of the ancient confessors, or of any of the accepted symbols of the Church." From which we are to infer that the theology of the fathers and of the martyrs and of the ancient confessors or old cast-iron middle-aged orthodoxy, is to be taken as the standard of truth, and the doctrine of evolution judged by its agreement with that standard. That the writer should argue that the doctrine of evolution is materialistic and atheistic is quite a matter of course; but what we wish to call attention to here is, that he seems to have but little more care as to whether this doctrine is true to the realities of nature than had the old inquisitors in relation to the new astronomy. Indeed, toward the close of his article he has the following contemptuous reference to this point: "We are not going to argue here the truth or falsehood of the unverified and unverifiable hypothesis which is palmed upon us in the name of science." Still, we think that the question of "truth or falsehood" in so important a case is one that might well have been settled first. If the theory of evolution, as the writer declares, "has been reached in utter defiance of the canons of scientific method," it would have been well to show this at the outset. Besides, if the doctrine is an imposture, "which is palmed upon us in the name of science," it would be interesting to have it pointed out by what extraordinary hocus-pocus the scientific men of the present age have been imposed upon in accepting it.

To us the chief interest of Mr. Beecher's position, assumed in his recent books, is as a register of the rising influence and increasing power of scientific ideas and the corresponding decline of theological authority. He has passed far beyond the stage in which he asks first whether new ideas agree with old creeds. Although a professed theologian, he has so thoroughly entered into the spirit and method of modern science as to recognize that the supreme question in this case is whether the doctrine of evolution is an expression of the truth of nature. Mr. Beecher has by no means repudiated theology, but he has taken the great step of subordinating it to the standards of truth established by investigation and the study of the order and economy of the existing world. The old notion of two sets or systems of truth, one of which has claims of a special sacredness and superiority, while the other is profane, secular, and of merely human origin, and therefore of inferior rank, we understand him to repudiate. He finds the sacredness of authority in the truth itself, and none the less because man discovers and establishes it by his own faculties. Mr. Beecher, therefore, represents in an eminent way that vast change or revolution of modern thought which gives a higher value and a nobler significance to the study of nature and the revelation of the truths of nature. Nor in thus giving his highest allegiance to natural truth as disclosed by the workings of the human mind can he be said to have rejected religion or left the religious sphere. Holding firmly to theism, he simply maintains that the truth and order and harmony of nature are the highest manifestations of the attributes of God.

Mr. Beecher reconstructs the old theology, rejecting large portions of it which have formerly been held as essential, and reshaping what remains so as to bring it into better agreement with modern scientific ideas. As an honest and conscientious man he found no escape from entering upon this work. Only as an indifferentist, or a trifler, or a theologian enslaved to his traditions, could he recognize the great changes wrought by modern science, without any concern for those readjustments of human belief which have become inevitable. His book is full of evidences of that sincerity and earnestness of feeling upon the subject which have impelled him to undertake the task of working out the religious bearings of the doctrine of evolution. He saw that it had taken root in the best intelligence of the civilized world. There was no blinking or evasion of the facts that had to be met. The strong men of all nations who give their lives to the study of nature, the devotees of research, and the investigators of original truth in all departments of natural phenomena had come to agreement over this great principle with a rapidity and a unanimity such as has never before been seen in the history of science. There had been a vast accumulation of observations, facts, and principles in every department of research which defied explication and organization until the law of evolution was grasped and applied to them, and, under the light it afforded, the work of research went on with increasing fruitfulness and success. The doctrine of evolution was not merely acknowledged, but it became a new guide to the discovery of truth, which is the highest possible attestation that could be given of its verity. Nor was it by any means a mystery of experts continued to laboratories of which ordinary people could know nothing and must take on authority. Its illustrations and proofs constantly multiplied in those common spheres of thought with which intelligent people are familiar, so that the current literature of the time was full of it. Mr. Beecher saw that the doctrine was not only accredited by a very large number of the ablest minds of the age as an established truth, but he had himself been a student of the subject in his own field of labor, and he found it of invaluable service in that revision of beliefs and opinions which was a part of his responsible duty as an independent public teacher. In broadly accepting and comprehensively applying the new doctrine, Mr. Beecher gives a powerful impulse to theological reform, for, in the further winnowing of religious opinions, only those will stand which are found vitally rooted in the truths of nature; and, from this point of view, the acceptance of the doctrine of evolution by the religious mind will be the most important step yet taken in renovating theology by ending its antagonism with the order of natural truth, and by making "the solid ground of nature" its lasting and unshakable foundation.