Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/April 1875/Science from the Pulpit




ARE ministers fitted to discuss the bearing of modern science upon religion? This question forces itself upon one who is both a member of a church and a lover of science, and deserves to be carefully weighed by those who have the interests of Christianity at heart. An article by the editor of the Nation, in the issue of December 24, 1874, takes the very sensible ground that a man of science should have no greater authority in controverted religious questions than the most humble member of a church. His views are not entitled to great consideration simply because he is a student of science. This seems to touch the vital part of the question. The history of the world shows, however, that the assumption of exclusive right to treat religious questions with authority, and the barring out of critical intruders, have always come from a class of men who are peculiarly unfitted by education to see the bearing of modern investigation. The Church should be eager to receive the discoveries of investigators of the strange and wonderful works of the Creator, with confidence that all can and must be reconciled with revealed religion. We see very little of this eager, receptive condition among ministers. On the contrary, the occupants of the pulpits immediately assume a fretful condition of indignation. They bristle at the very mention of the doctrine of evolution, of prehistoric man, and the theories of the antiquity of the world.

The address of Prof. Tyndall has been criticised from a hundred pulpits. If carefully read, it will not be found to afford material for the wave of indignation which has swept over the religious world. The address was evidently inspired by an indignant feeling of protest against religious dictation in science, which was tinctured also by a certain want of reverence characteristic of many scientific men. This deficiency in reverence is to be lamented, but the attitude of an investigator is generally one of irreverence. Prof. Tyndall is quick to perceive the scientific questions which are to be fashionable, so to speak, among the general public. He early saw the tide of interest which was setting toward the ice-formations of Switzerland. He led the general public to appreciate the doctrine of the conservation of force by his admirable treatise on "Heat as a Mode of Motion." He is the pioneer in the modern style of popular scientific lectures, which gives to beauty of experimental illustration a lucid yet imaginative diction. No less ready has he been to perceive the coming ferment in religious matters; and he has dashed gallantly into the combat with a certain Celtic fire, leaving perhaps many unguarded points. It may be that he considers that the religious agitation in Germany has nothing to do with the prerogatives of emperor or pope: but that bigoted religion and science are the true antagonists, and, with his customary insight into the scientific tendencies of the age, he is eager to be the first in the field. There is much in the spirit of protest which the Belfast address breathes that appeals to the mind of every scientific man.

Ministers who are only general readers in science can have no conception of the scientific spirit which comes through investigation. There is a cultivated interest which arises only from familiarity with methods, processes, and instruments. A minister lives apart from the seething turmoil and progress of the scientific world; and, if he should attempt to dispute with innovators, he will meet the same fate as any comparative recluse who attempts to dictate to the world from his retirement.

Nothing leads thinking young men of scientific tendencies to neglect church-going more than wrong-headed and illogical deductions from science by their pastors. They hear the doctrines of Darwin condemned by men who have not carefully read the many treatises for and against evolution, and who have not sound conceptions of the true grounds of the learned authors. The writer once heard a divine vigorously controvert the doctrines of Darwin, and exhaust his resources of invective upon the unfortunate believers in the evolution theories of the present, much to the edification of the regular churchgoers, who, for the most part, had never read the books which were criticised, but had a general idea that Darwinism, socialism, and communism, were equally pernicious to the welfare of society. The occupant of the pulpit, upon seeing that he swept his audience with him, elevated himself to his full height and exclaimed, "If they believe that man descended from an ape, let them take a monkey from the Zoological Gardens, and, by a process of natural selection and cultivation, make a man of him. Surely this is not unreasonable to ask!"

I often hear sermons from men who admire the progress of science, yet who do incalculable damage by drawing wide and unwarrantable inferences and conclusions from scientific facts. These inferences are often made by men who are well read in the scientific literature of the day, but who do not regard the limits of scientific generalizations, and take steps which the scientific hearer would not dream of taking. The hearer, knowing how defective the preacher's judgment is in his inferences from science, naturally doubts the clearness of his pastor's judgment on even purely theological points. The attempt to reconcile science and religion is like an endeavor to measure two constantly-expanding scales by comparison with each other. It does not seem to be recognized that a scientific man can have a religion apart from his science: that it is not necessary for him to apply the exact laws of his particular science to his religious convictions, or to test the logic of his belief by the methods which he has found necessary and invaluable in scientific investigations. Many scientific men who are considered atheists are far from being so. It is compatible for a man to be a logical reasoner in an exact science, and yet to refuse to apply the touchstones, which serve him in his science, to his religion. He recognizes that his religious belief is an inherent want of his nature. Strict logicians may laugh at him, and claim that he is inconsistent; he himself feels that his tests fail; he cannot reason; he must receive much on faith. Nothing, therefore, is so disagreeable and demoralizing to the man who is loyal, both to his religion and his science, as to hear the attempts of preachers to reconcile an incomplete knowledge of Nature's laws—for, at the best, we are only on the boundaries of the science of Nature—with the great mystery of revealed religion. It were better that the subject should be left untouched; that the minister should be pronounced not in step with progress, than that he should awaken the spirit of opposition and distrust in the minds of the thinkers on scientific problems.

Such are some of the evils of a superficial exposition of science from the pulpit. If the young student of theology has had a rigid scientific training, it will prove of great advantage to him in the future. Leading minds in the Church recognize that, if the materialism arising from the spread of scientific ideas, received at second hand and fondled until they have deadened religious faith, is to be combated successfully, it must be attacked by men who are not mere superficial readers, who get up their knowledge of science as they would the history of the Reformation. There is a type of character at the present day which is seen in almost every community. The men constituting it, with the most superficial knowledge of science, have their own views upon the causes of natural phenomena. They believe in animal magnetism—in the connection of electricity with every thing that fails to be explained by any other agent. They speculate upon the constitution of suns and comets. Said one of this class to the writer lately: "Do you believe that the sun is heat? You are wrong if you do. I believe that it is electricity." The minister must deal with this type, with sound knowledge. An omnivorous reader, a village wiseacre in science, may easily have, in these days, a little sect of his own in a community. The minister, therefore, cannot ignore science, if he would reach all hearts. Yet an illogical and incomplete treatment of Nature's laws, and wrong deductions and false applications, will be quickly criticised by men who, however much they like to have hypotheses of their own, are harsh and critical to those of their minister.

Let us see what the training is which is to enable our young divinity students to successfully combat the modern scientific materialism. We shall take the catalogues of four leading divinity schools—the schools at Andover, Harvard University, Yale, and Princeton:

At Andover, the junior year is devoted to the study of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, systematic theology, homiletics, church history, and elocution; the middle year is devoted to systematic theology, the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, church history, and elocution; the senior year is devoted to church history, homiletics, Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, pastoral theology, and elocution.

In addition to the regular course of instruction, special courses of lectures are delivered by eminent clergymen on foreign missions, home missions, and Congregationalism.

At the Harvard Divinity School the course consists of the following:

Hebrew Language; principles of criticism and interpretation; the literature, canon, and exegesis of the Old and New Testaments; biblical archaeology and geography; natural religion, and the evidences of revealed religion; the philosophy of religion; systematic theology; philosophical and Christian ethics; the ethnic religions, and the creeds of Christendom; ecclesiastical history, and the history of Christian doctrine; church polity and administration.

We learn, from the prospectus of the Yale Theological School, that "the chief aim of the seminary is to train men to be preachers of the Gospel, and especially such teachers as the present state of the world requires." Its course of study is as follows:

Junior year, encyclopædia and literature of theology, and instruction in Hebrew grammar and philology; exegetical study of the Greek New Testament; mental philosophy, with special reference to the study of theology—also natural theology; the evidences of Christianity, and the inspiration of the Scriptures—also, as incidental to these topics, the various forms of skepticism; middle year, systematic theology; general church history; Biblical theology; critical study of the New Testament; American church history; senior year, sacred rhetoric and homiletics; pastoral theology; Christian doctrine and on symbolical theology; church polity; lectures in natural theology and moral philosophy; natural philosophy; history; political economy; anatomy and physiology. The undergraduate departments are open to the divinity students, as also are the courses in the Sheffield Scientific School.

The course at Princeton differs in having a department entitled "The Harmony of Science and Revealed Religion," extending through the junior and senior years of the undergraduate department as a required course. "The first year of the course includes the study of natural theology, as connected with the physical sciences which illustrate the being and attributes of the Creator; and of natural religion, as connected with the mental and moral sciences which illustrate the Divine government, future state, and probation." The second part of the course includes a similar defense of revealed religion by the inductive logic, with the study of the miraculous, prophetic, historical, and scientific evidences of Christianity. The third part includes the study of inductive science as connected with revealed religion; the history of their seeming conflicts and alliances; the logic applicable to their relations, and the growing evidences of their harmony as alike involving the promotion of perfect science and the vindication of the Christian religion. The text-books used, in the elementary part of the course, are Paley's "Natural Theology," Butler's "Analogy of Religion and Nature," and Bacon's "Novum Organum;" with frequent lectures upon the topics of which they treat, as well as upon other more recent questions emerging in the different sciences which are in relation with revealed religion.

It will be seen that scarcely any attention is paid to a scientific training, or to methods of scientific thought. The young divinity student who enters any theological school—without a preliminary college education—can know nothing of the great questions upon which he is destined to preach with more or less confidence. The time of study, indeed, may be too short for a scientific course in any divinity school. And it is to be doubted whether general lectures on science, or on scientific methods of thought, illustrated even with the aid of such books as Jevons's "Principles of Science," can do much to enable the young theologian to sufficiently appreciate the attitude of scientific men. Laboratory work will only enable a man to perceive the true scope and limit of science. This laboratory work cannot be undertaken by the young divinity student unless he takes it during a college course, as it is possible to do at Harvard University. An extended scientific training appears to be an impossibility for a young minister; and the most successful sermons seem to the writer, who is both a member of a church and a lover of science, to be those in which argument and logic are laid aside, and simple faith and enthusiasm take their place. A minister cannot expect to meet a scientific man on his own ground, in regard to the scope and bearing of his studies. By his eloquence in denunciation of scientific radicalism he can only hope to carry with him those who are ignorant, and who cling to old traditions. With his present preliminary education a minister cannot influence deep thinkers by any wealth of argument which he may possess. He can only hope to do this by the great power of touching human sympathies which the Bible gives him; by dwelling on the joys and sorrows of man's strange and brief career, and by picturing that hereafter of purity which, we venture to say, no man, even the most short-sighted scientific materialist, ever despairs of.