Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/July 1875/The Deeper Harmonies of Science and Religion II
|THE DEEPER HARMONIES OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION.|
I HAVE suggested the thought of a God revealed in Nature, not by any means because such a view of God seems to me satisfactory, or worthy to replace the Christian view, or even as a commencement from which we must rise by logical necessity to the Christian view. I have suggested it because this is the God whom the present age actually does, and in spite of all opposition, certainly will worship, also because this aspect of God is common to all theologies, however much in some it may be slighted or depreciated; and, lastly, because I do not believe that any theology can be real or satisfying that does not make it prominent as well as admit it. I can conceive no religion as satisfactory that falls short of Christianity; but, on the other hand, I cannot believe any religion to be healthy that does not start from Nature-worship. It is in the free and instinctive admiration of human beings for the glory of heaven, earth and sea, that religion begins, and I cannot imagine but as morbid a religion which has ceased to admire them.
But many readers will probably think that not much is to be hoped for from dwelling on this subject. "We know very well that the universe is glorious, but, when you have said that, there is an end of the matter. We want to make atheists believe in God, and you do it not by changing their minds, but by changing the meaning of the word God. It is not a verbal controversy that rages between atheists and Christians, but a controversy that concerns the most serious realities. When people display such rancor against religion as was shown by the Paris Commune, you may be sure there is some essential matter in dispute, and that nothing is more vain than to attempt to reconcile them by refining upon words. According to the definition you have given of theism, no rational being could ever be an atheist."
I will endeavor to answer this supposed objection at length, and the part of it which sounds the most formidable will give me the least trouble. That people do not shoot and stab each other for a word is not always true. In fact, when the word is theological that is just what people do. It has often been remarked of theological controversies, that they are never conducted more bitterly than when the difference between the rival doctrines is very small. This is nearly correct, but not quite. If you want to see the true white heat of controversial passion, if you want to see men fling away the very thought of reconciliation, and close in internecine conflict, you should look at controversialists who do not differ at all but who have adopted different words to express the same opinion.
But the other question raised in the objection, the question whether there can be such a thing as atheism, will furnish me with a convenient point from which I may start for a fuller explanation of what I mean by the worship of God in Nature. As I have represented modern science as a form of theism, and as there is no rational man who does not believe at—least, in a general way—in science, it follows of course that no sensible man in these times can be speculatively an atheist. And I believe no one can, however many great philosophers may have congratulated themselves upon accomplishing that feat. If, then, no man could be an atheist practically without being one speculatively also, it would be true that men are entirely mistaken in the importance they attach to the distinction between theist and so-called atheist. It would then appear to be a misdescribed distinction, and to be in reality only a distinction between two kinds of theists. This is what in common controversy it actually is. One might suppose beforehand that the theist and atheist must necessarily have the whole diameter between them, that their thoughts upon all subjects must be affected by this fundamental difference. It is not so in fact; the theist and the so-called atheist often indeed differ very widely, but sometimes also they think very much alike. This is, in reality, because one or other has been misnamed, for, between a real and thoroughly convinced theist and an atheist really deserving that name, there is almost as much difference as we could expect; only the latter character is not very easy to meet with.
An atheist in the proper sense of the word is not a man who disbelieves in the goodness of God, or in his distinctness from Nature, or in his personality. These disbeliefs may be as serious in their way as atheism, but they are different. Atheism is a disbelief in the existence of God—that is, a disbelief in any regularity in the universe to which a man must conform himself under penalties. Such a disbelief, as I have said, is speculatively monstrous, but it may exist practically, and where it does is an evil as fatal to character and virtue as the most timid religionist supposes. We may consider here, briefly, some of the forms which atheism assumes.
The purest form of atheism might be called by the general name of willfulness. All human activity is a transaction with Nature. It is the arrangement of a compromise between what we want on the one hand and what Nature has decreed on the other. Something of our own wishes we have almost always to give up; but by carefully considering the power outside ourselves, the necessity that conditions all our actions, we may make better terms than we could otherwise, and reduce to a minimum what we are obliged to renounce. Now we may either underrate or overrate the force of our own wills. The first is the extravagance of theism; it is that fatalism which steals so naturally upon those who have dwelt much upon the thought of God, which is said to paralyze, for example, the whole soul of the Mussulman. But the opposite mistake is a deficiency of theism; a touch of it often marks the hero, but the fullness of it is that kind of blind infatuation which poets have represented under the image of the giants that tried to storm heaven. Not to recognize any thing but your own will, to fancy every thing within your reach if you only will strongly enough, to acknowledge no superior power outside yourself which must be considered and in some way propitiated if you would succeed in any undertaking—this is complete willfulness, or, in other words, pure atheism. It may also be called childishness, for the child naturally discovers the force within it sooner than the resisting necessity outside. Not without a few falls in the wrestle with Nature do we learn the limits of our own power and the pitiless immensity of the power that is not ours. But there are many who cannot learn this lesson even from experience, who forget every defeat they suffer, and always refuse to see any power in the universe but their own wills. Sometimes, indeed, they discover their mistake too late. Many barbarous races are in this condition. In their childishness they have engaged themselves in a direct conflict with Nature. Instead of negotiating with her, they have declared a blind war. They have adopted habits which they gradually discover to be leading them to destruction; but they discover it too late and when they are too deeply compromised. Then we see the despair of the atheistic nation, and its wild struggles as it feels itself caught in the whirlpool; then, a little later, we find that no such nation exists, and on the map its seat begins to be covered with names belonging to another language. Less extreme and unredeemed, the same Titanism may sometimes be remarked in races called civilized. Races might be named that are undergoing punishments little less severe for this insensate atheism. "Sedet æternumque sedebit," that unhappy Poland, not indeed extinguished but partitioned, and every thirty years decimated anew. She expiates the crime of atheistic willfulness, the fatal pleasure of unbounded individual liberty, which rose up against the very nature of things. And other nations we know that expect all successes from the mere blind fury of willing, that declare the word impossible unknown to their language. They color their infatuation sometimes with the name of self-sacrifice, and fancy they can change the Divine laws by offering up themselves as victims to their own vanity; they "fling themselves against the bars of fate;" they die in theatrical attitudes, and little know how "the abyss is wreathed in scorn" of such cheap martyrdom.
A wrong belief about God, however fatal it may be, is not atheism. Ml*. Buckle tried to show that the Spanish empire fell through a false conception of the order of the universe; and it seems clear that the rigid Catholic view of the world is dangerous in this age to every nation that adopts it. These are the effects of false theology. But there is a state of mind which, though very far removed from the willfulness I have been describing, and often accompanied with a strong and anxious religiousness, may nevertheless be practically regarded as a form of atheism. It is the state of those minds which, fully believing in an order of the universe, yet have such a poor and paltry conception of it that they might almost as well have none at all.
People are sometimes led to this by a very reasonable and excusable process of thought. Naturally modest and distrustful of their own powers, they despair of understanding the order of the universe; they think it almost presumptuous to attempt to understand it. Wisely distrustful of any knowledge that is not precise, they avert their eyes instinctively from every thing which cannot be made the subject of such knowledge. In all their transactions with Nature, to use my former phrase, they make it a rule to be unambitious. They aim at objects very definite and very near. Whatever they gain they make it a rule not to expose to any further risk. They avoid, as it were, meeting the universe in front, and endeavor to overcome it in detail. For its immediate purpose this plan is the best that can be pursued. If in all our actions we allowed ourselves to remember the greatness of the power with which we have to do, we should accomplish nothing; if, because Nature's laws are large and comprehensive, we never acted except on the largest principles, we should either fall a prey to unsound generalizations, the more ruinous because of their grandeur, or we should become paralyzed with a Turkish fatalism. Far better, no doubt, it is to make the utmost use of what precise knowledge we have, however little may be the amount of it, and, not to suffer our minds to be bewildered by coping too freely with an adversary whose play is beyond us. It is these humble, cautiously inductive people that prosper most in the world up to a certain point. To them belong the large populations, the thriving communities, the stable politics. They never dream of defying Nature; they win an endless series of small victories over her.
There is no reason why this cautiousness should necessarily degenerate into little-mindedness. It does not take its beginning in any deficiency in the feeling for what is great. On the contrary, it is the direct result of an overwhelming sense of the greatness and, so to speak, the dangerousness of Nature. Those who proceed thus warily, probing Nature as they go, may with most reason expect to penetrate far and to elevate their minds gradually until they can venture to cope with the grandeur of the world and become familiar with great ideas. And when this is done they will have escaped the danger of atheism. Their minds will become the mirror of an Infinite Being, and their whole natures will be conformed to his. But in the earlier stages of such a process the temptation to a kind of atheism is strong. From the habit of leaving out of account all larger considerations in every problem, on the ground that they are vague and not precisely calculable, they are led easily to forget the very existence of such considerations. In some cases this habit even leads to great practical miscalculations. It is evidently a mistake in algebra to assume that all unknown quantities 0; yet this mistake is constantly made by the practical men I am describing. When vague considerations are suggested to them, instead of assigning them an approximate value, which, since they cannot get the true value, is evidently what they ought to do, they leave them out of account altogether, though an indeterminate value may just as easily be large as small. But it is not with these practical mistakes that I am now concerned; practically these men are more often right than wrong, though in the exceptional cases, when every thing turns on a great principle, they fail deplorably. But the habit of never suffering the mind to dwell on any thing great produces often an atheism of the most pitiable and helpless kind. The soul of man lives upon the contemplation of laws or principles; it is made to be constantly assimilating such sustenance from the universe; this is its food: not by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God, doth man live. What, then, must be the moral starvation of the man who, from an excess of caution, turns away from every thing of the kind, until from want of habit he can no longer see such things, and forgets their very existence; so that for him there is no longer any glory in the universe! For all beauty or glory is but the presence of law; and the universe to him has ceased to be a scene of law, and has become an infinite litter of detail, a rubbish-heap of confused particulars, a mere worry and weariness to the imagination. I have been describing the Philistine, the miserable slave of details, who worships a humiliated, dissected and abject deity, a mere Dagon, "fallen flat upon the grundsel-edge, and shaming his worshipers."
There is a particular form of conventionalism which all men who see it instinctively call by the name of atheism. By conventionalism generally, I understand the mistaking of institutions, usages, forms of society, which essentially are temporary and transitory, for normal and permanent forms. It is conventionalism, for example, when hereditary royalty or aristocracy are supposed to be not merely good institutions in particular cases but necessary in all countries and times. There is nothing at all atheistic in such a mistake; it is rather a superstition—that is, it is a false belief, but still a belief. The temporary arrangements are honestly confused with eternal laws, the feelings and views which in course of time have grown up around them are honestly mistaken for essential morality. The devoted adherents of the exiled Stuarts and Bourbons, the early Jesuits and the other champions of the counter-reformation, seem to me to have been such conventionalists. I think they confounded a transitory state of things with the sacred and eternal laws of human society. But for a long time their faith was genuine though mistaken. They had a God, and therefore they had vigor, and occasionally victory. But at the same time their belief was an ebbing tide. The movement of the age was, on the whole, against it; their successes always bore the marks of being accidental, and were followed in no long time by more than equivalent reverses. They could never give a character of reality to what they created; they could seldom feel quite easy and happy in their party strife. Their eloquence was copious and sonorous, but not often quite natural, and seldom convincing or overwhelming. And with such conventionalists, when the age puts them on their defense, these misgivings, this uneasiness, this constraint and depression go on increasing. Doubt penetrates them in spite of all their resistance, in spite of all the chivalrous devotion to their cause upon which they pride themselves. In the ardor of conflict they have pushed into the foreground all the weakest parts of their creed, and have got into the habit of asserting most vehemently just what they doubt most, because it is what is most denied. As their own belief ebbs away from them, they are precluded from learning a new one, because they are too deeply pledged, have promised too much, asseverated too much, and involved too many others with themselves. Thus their language becomes more and more vehement and hollow, more and more despairing under the mask of triumphant confidence. It may happen that the cause they defend is not merely unsound, but terribly bad, that what they have taken for sacred institutions are in reality monstrous abuses. Then, as they become reluctantly enlightened, as their advocacy grows first a little forced, then by degrees consciously hypocritical, until in the end their eyes are fully opened not only to the fact that their cause is bad, but, to all the enormous badness of it, there follows a complete moral dissolution of the whole man. Unable to abandon a position he is bound to, forced to act belief and enthusiasm when under the mask there is the very opposite of both—settled disbelief and utter disapproval—the man sees now in the universe nothing but a chaos. At the beginning he had a God; his actions were regulated by a law which he recognized in the universe; but now he recognizes this law no more, and yet is forbidden by his situation from recognizing any other. The link that bound him to the universe is snapped; the motive that inspired his actions is gone, and his actions have become meaningless, mechanical, galvanic. He is an atheist, a man without a God because without a law. Such men may generally be noted among the most intelligent adherents of expiring causes, demoralized soldiers, powerless for good and capable of any mischief.
These are specimens of what seems to me to be properly called atheism. The common characteristic of all these states of mind is feebleness. In the first example you have violent feebleness, impotence; in the second, cautious feebleness; in the third, cynical feebleness; but in all cases feebleness springing from a conscious want of any clew to the order of the universe. The specimens I have selected are all such as may be furnished by men of great natural vigor. The cynical atheist has often an extreme subtilty of intellect, the Philistine commonly begins with a great grasp of reality, a great superiority to illusions; the willful atheist has often much imagination and energy. Where a character wanting in energy is infected by atheism, you have those αμένηνα κᾴρηνα of which the world is at all times full. By the side of the profound cynic you have the mere lounger, who can take an interest in nothing, all whose thoughts are hearsays, never verified, never realized, not believed, not worthy of the name of prejudices—echoes of prejudices, imitations of hypocrisy. He moves about embarrassed and paralyzed by the hollowness of all he knows; conscious that nothing that he has in his mind would bear the smallest criticism or probation, knowing no way to any thing better, and meanwhile ingenuously confessing his own inanity. By the side of the over-judicious Philistine, who has fallen into feebleness through an excessive dread of generalizing hastily, there may be seen the born Philistine, who does not know, and has never heard, what generalizing is, who becomes uncomfortable when he hears a principle enunciated, as if he had been addressed by a foreigner in some language unknown to him, and whose homely talk never willingly travels beyond what time the train starts, and whether it happened on Monday or on Tuesday. Lastly, by the side of the brilliant Utopian, who overlooks the greatness of the necessity with which he has to contend, there is the Utopian without brilliancy, the enragé the mere restless disturber.
As atheism is but another name for feebleness, so the universal characteristic of theology—if we put aside for the present the rare belief in an utterly hostile or thwarting Deity—is energy. He who has a faith, we know well, is twice himself. The world, the conventional or temporary order of things, goes down before the weapons of faith, before the energy of those who have a glimpse, or only think they have a glimpse, of the eternal or normal order of things. And this vigor of theism does not much depend on the nature of the God in whom the theist believes. Just as atheism does not consist in a bad theory of the universe, but in the want of any theory, so theism consists not in possessing a meritorious or true or consoling theology, but simply in possessing a theory of the universe. He who has such a theory acts with confidence and decision, he who has no such theory is paralyzed. One of the rudest of all theories of the universe is that propounded by Mohammed, yet it raised up a feeble and dispersed nation to vigor, union, and empire. Calvinism presents assuredly a view of the universe which is not in any way consoling, yet this creed too gave vigor and heroism. The creed of the earliest Romans rested upon no basis which could for a moment pass for philosophical, yet while it was believed it gave order to the state, sanction to morality, victory to the armies. Whatever kind of theology be in question, so long as it is truly believed, the only danger is of its inspiring too much energy—of its absorbing its votaries too much, and driving them into extreme courses.
And so if the Nature recognized by Science be not benevolent, and have provided no future life for men, it does not follow that her votaries are not theologians, and it is quite clear that their theology gives them energy. Many theologies have had no future life; indeed, it is well known that our own, in its earlier Judaic form, laid no stress upon any future life. And it is not the benevolence of his Deity which gives so much energy and confidence to the convinced theist; it is rather the assurance that he has the secret of propitiating his Deity. It was not because Jupiter and Mars were benevolent beings that the Roman went out to battle confiding in their protection. It was because all sacrifices had been performed which the pontiffs or the Sibylline books prescribed. Just of the same kind is the theistic vigor which we see in modern science. Science also has its procuratio prodigiorutm. It does not believe that Nature is benevolent, and yet it has all the confidence of Mohammedans or Crusaders. This is because it believes it understands the laws of Nature, and knows how to deal so that Nature shall favor its operations. Not by the Sibylline books, but by experiment; not by supplications, but by scientific precautions and operations, it discovers and propitiates the mind of its Deity.
But by the side of this scientific theology decrying theology there is also a popular outcry against theology. The Revolution in Europe delights in declaring itself atheistic. The meaning of this in the main is, that it wishes to express in the tersest possible way its hatred of the reigning theology. But with this feeling there is no doubt a mixture of that real atheism I have described above under the name of willfulness. These revolutionists have so little conception of the greatness of the powers which determine the order of things, that they imagine they have only to make up their minds and to express their resolution with sufficient vehemence and to fling away their lives with sufficient recklessness, and human society will in a short time assume just the shape they wish. They think, in short, that they themselves are very great, and that Nature is very little. Still, it is evident enough that their hatred against the reigning theology is not a merely capricious feeling. It is no wild, egotistic grudge against whatever is powerful, however this feeling may occasionally blend with it. It is a serious, persistent, deep-rooted aversion. But it by no means follows that the reigning system excites their hatred purely as a theology, even though they themselves believe so. In their furious invectives against God, nothing is more evident than that they are thinking of a special conception of God, and, though they themselves do not profess to substitute any other conception, it is very possible they are unconsciously doing so. At any rate, the mere fact that these men are nominally atheists proves no more than is proved by the same name having been commonly bestowed upon the first Christians.
What, then, are the grounds of the irreconcilable repugnance of the Revolution for theology? Nothing is more easy than to distinguish and enumerate the principal ones. First may be ranked the political ground, that is, the intimate connection in which they find theology standing to the political system they are laboring to overthrow. Twice in modern Europe it has been possible to discern the interdependence of the reigning political with the reigning theological system. Modern history is filled with two great movements, the Reformation and the Revolution. The first was an attempt to purify religion, the second an attempt to reform government and society. In both cases the principal obstacle to the movement was found in the coalition of the Church and Government. The decided reaction against the Reformation which marks the second half of the sixteenth century, and which ended in restoring the mediæval form of Christianity in so many countries of Europe, seems to have been principally caused by the feeling of some courts, particularly the imperial court, that they could not afford to forfeit the support of the great Catholic organization, and by the corresponding disposition in Catholicism to ally itself with governments. The principle of saving the Church by the help of governments was avowed—Ranke tells us—by Pope Pius IV., and it was by this means that Catholicism was restored upon a new and strengthened foundation at the Council of Trent. What the Church owed to the state for protection against the Reformation it repaid two centuries later in assistance against the Revolution. A time had come round when the state was threatened as the Church had been, and now kings became faithful churchmen as the churchmen of Pius IV.'s school had before become faithful royalists. For half a century kings had coquetted with free-thought, and free-thought had flattered kings. But when the crisis came, and royalty was in danger, it hurried back to find shelter in the Church. Napoleon, Charles X., and the Emperor Francis, formed the new alliance by which theology was called in to drive out revolution in the state, just as Pius IV. formed the older alliance with royalty against Reformation in the Church. The natural effect of this coalition is to incline the Revolution to attack the Church at the same time that it assails Government. Atheism has become the creed of revolution because theology has been the traditional creed of monarchy and of privilege.
But is it true that theology is necessarily conservative or monarchical, because it happens to be true of the Christian Church, or the most prominent part of it, at this particular time? At particular times and places theology has been revolutionary. The earliest Christians must have seemed the most revolutionary party of the Greek and Roman world. Mohammedanism was so violently revolutionary that it completely transformed the Eastern world, and has caused almost the whole East to look back upon the ages preceding it as upon "times of ignorance." The same may be said of Buddhism in Asia. And certainly one form at least of Protestantism—I mean Puritanism—was revolutionary in spirit, and led either to an abridgment of royal power or to positive republicanism.
Hereditary royalty and aristocratic privilege were the institutions which, in the last century, the Revolution attacked. It was historically in the names of skepticism, and sometimes of atheism, that the attack was conducted. But there was no reason at all in the nature of things why the same attack should not have been made in the name of theology. In France, theology has been on the side of privilege, and equality has been associated with opposition to theology. But, in Turkey the opposite has happened; the equality of mankind has been preached, and successfully, in the name of theology. If a Christian preacher had been inspired to do so, he might with perfect warrant from his religion have proclaimed equality in France. Indeed, this was to some extent what actually happened. Rousseau spoke partly in the name of theology, and even of Christian theology; and it was not until the skeptical foundation had been in a manner abandoned, and an appeal made to religion, that the spirit of political change awoke.
Indeed, to say that the Revolution has charged upon theology itself what is merely the defect of a particular theology, is a statement much short of the truth. The conservatism of the Church in the last ages is not principally due to the natural tendencies of the Christian religion. It is not so much Christianity as the Church that has been conservative. Church and government have been drawn together not so much from any natural sympathy—witness their perpetual conflicts in the middle ages—as by a common danger. All that can be said is, that in the hour of difficulty, when it was their obvious interest to combine, they have not found themselves so antipathetic that they could not do so. In neither of the two great crises was the help rendered by the one to the other disinterested. In the sixteenth century it was the Church that was threatened most; but governments were also uneasy, and took as well as gave in the arrangement they made with the Church. In the Revolution the state struggled for life, but the distress of the Church was almost as great. In these circumstances they would be driven into alliance even in the absence of any natural affinity, and being once in alliance would excite the indiscriminate aversion of the Revolution as if they had been natural allies. In one instance at least this has been strikingly realized. When the Revolution attacked monarchy and privilege, it was not very surprising that they should attack Christianity at the same time. Christianity is entirely silent on the question of liberty, and lends no support to those who contend against despotism. It has been used to defend despotism, and not without plausibility. It is not quite the same with privilege. Christianity is clearly favorable on the whole to equality, and yet even here its declaration is not very distinct. But in due time the Revolution, having conquered these enemies, went on to attack new ones. Leaving behind its mediæval monarchy and aristocracy, it proclaimed war against plutocracy. It proclaimed the principle of fraternity, fraternity between individuals as opposed to reckless competition in industry, fraternity between nations as opposed to war. Now, this new principle is not merely consistent with Christianity; to say this would be almost as absurd as to call it inconsistent with Christianity. It is neither more nor less than Christianity itself, Christianity is certainly not a socialistic system, because it is not, in that sense of the word, a system at all, but most assuredly Christianity furnished the ideas which the different socialistic systems are blundering attempts to realize, Not only so, but I believe that Christianity as a morality actually did nothing else, and that the modern word fraternity coincides exactly with the moral side of Christianity. And when fraternity was first put upon the order of the day in 1848, this fact was to some extent recognized. Christianity actually played a certain part in that Revolution. But then followed a restoration of the old alliance between the Church and Government. For twenty years they continued accomplices in reaction. The consequence has been that when Revolution once more raises its head, it is no longer able to see the identity of fraternity and Christianity, nay, absolutely identifies Christianity with the negation of fraternity. How far it is possible to falsify an institution was never known to mankind until, in 1871, the Paris workmen assailed with irreconcilable fury the Church of Christ in the name of human brotherhood.
Thus the political repugnance of the Revolution to theology is in part merely a repugnance to an institution which has falsified the theology of which it is the depositary, and in any case is a repugnance not to theology as such, but merely to a particular theology. But the Revolution has also, no doubt, a quarrel with theology as a doctrine. "Theology," it says, "even if not exactly opposed to social improvement, is a superstition, and as such allied to ignorance and conservatism. Granting that its precepts are good, it enforces them by legends and fictitious stories which can only influence the uneducated; and, therefore, in order to preserve its influence, it must needs oppose education. Nor are these stories a mere excrescence of theology, but theology itself. For theology is neither more nor less than a doctrine of the supernatural. It proclaims a power behind Nature which occasionally interferes with natural laws. It proclaims another world quite different from this in which we live, a world into which what is called the soul is believed to pass at death. It believes, in short, in a number of things which students of Nature know nothing about, and which science puts aside either with respect or with contempt." Now, these supernatural doctrines are not merely a part of theology, still less separable from theology, but theology consists exclusively of them. Take away the supernatural person, miracles, and the spiritual world, you take away theology at the same time, and nothing is left but simple Nature and simple science. Thus theology comes to be used in the sense of supernaturalism, and in this view also excites the hostility of the age. Not merely scientific men themselves, for of these I am not now speaking, but liberals in general, all those who have any tincture of science, all whose minds have in any degree taken the scientific stamp, a vast number already, and, as education spreads, likely to become coextensive with civilized mankind, form a habit of thought with which they are led to consider theology irreconcilable.
It is a singular coincidence which has combined in apparent opposition to theology the two mightiest forces of the present age. Truly it is not against flesh and blood that Religion has to contend, but against principalities and powers, that is, against the Revolution and against Science. Hasty minds, poetic imaginations, ready theorists, will never be content to see a mere coincidence in this. They will not admit that theology has been undeservedly charged with all the sins of that ancient corporation called the Christian Church, with which sins in reality it had nothing whatever to do. It is much more convenient to imagine the Church as the body of which theology is the soul, and to trace all the body's actions to the natural disposition of the informing soul. By this easy process we arrive at the conclusion that theology is an essentially conservative and stagnant principle, with the strongest natural affinity for despotism, privilege, respectability, and every kind of antiquated pretension; that, in short, it is a way of viewing the universe which inevitably leads to all the vices peculiar to old endowed corporations. And that an institution which is opposed to the Revolution should be at the same time at war with Science will never be thought a mere coincidence. Party spirit will be adroit enough to make it out that Science and Revolution are as soul and body on the one side, as theology and conservatism are on the other; that people who believe in miracles must necessarily side with capital against labor, and that large standing armies follow logically from a belief in benevolent design.
As to the mistake which lies in confounding theology with supernaturalism it is not necessary here to do more than repeat shortly what was said in the first chapter. First, then, there is no necessary connection between theology and supernaturalism. It is quite possible to believe in a God, and even a personal God, of whom Nature is the complete and only manifestation. Supernaturalism is part of the reigning theology, but it is not any necessary part of theology, as such. Secondly, when it is said that supernaturalism is identical with theology, this is not true at all, even of the reigning theology, i, e., of modern Christianity. Such a notion has sprung from a confusion of ideas. In the controversy between Christianity and Science it has become usual for shortness to give the name of theology (meaning Christianity) to that part of theology which science controverts. This is a very usual and, if rightly understood, a very harmless controversial practice. The agreements between theology and Science may very properly be overlooked by controversy which is only concerned with their differences. But it is the mistake constantly made by controversialists to adopt this abridged notation, as I might call it, outside the domain of controversy. For example, Catholicism means two quite different things according as the word is used in controversy or not. In controversy with Protestantism, Catholicism means worship of the Virgin and the saints, transubstantiation, purgatory. But no mistake could be more monstrous than to suppose that if all these doctrines were removed Catholicism would disappear. On the contrary, by far the larger half would remain—worship of God, worship of Christ, heaven and hell, forgiveness of sins, the law of love. In the same way, in controversy with Science, Christianity (not theology) and supernaturalism are convertible terms. That is to say, if supernaturalism is refuted, Science wins and Christianity loses in the particular controversy in which they are engaged. In the controversial sense this is the destruction of Christianity, but only in the controversial sense. For when the worship of God outside Nature is taken away, the worship of God in Nature remains. Whether this residue is important or unimportant will be considered later; at any rate, it is there; and we may say at once that it would not be surprising if it should turn out more considerable than controversialists believe, when we remember how habitual it is for controversialists to exaggerate their differences, and generally how prodigiously exaggerated is the common estimate of the province of debate and dispute in human affairs.
At any rate, it is evident that the theology of the book of Job, of many of the Psalms, e. g.,the 104th, of many passages in the Prophets, of many discourses of Christ, of many passages in the Epistles, would remain unaffected if supernaturalism were entirely abandoned. I will say no more at this stage.
On the whole, then, when we look at the great controversy of the age, what do we see? It is said that a furious attack upon theology is being made by the two distinct though allied hosts of Science and Revolution. But we see something essentially different. We see that what is called Science is indeed a most formidable power, against whomsoever she may declare war, but that her enemy is not theology, but supernaturalism, and that Science herself has all the character of a theology, not comforting or elevating like that she opposes, but not less capable of inspiring zeal and subduing the mind with conviction, and bearing in her hand a budget of practical reforms; and, moreover, that the Deity of her devotion is not different, but only a too much disregarded aspect of the Deity of Christians. The host of Revolution which we see approaching from another side is far less formidable. It is infuriated, but neither knows what it would overthrow nor what it would build. But we can see that its enemy is not theology at all, nor even supernaturalism, except in a secondary degree. It is enraged against an ancient corporation, which, having something mediæval in its constitution, like so many other corporations, has been led in the latest centuries to make common cause with other mediæval institutions which were endangered by the modern spirit. This corporation happens to be the depositary of a theology partly supernaturalistic, but we can see plainly that had it been the depositary of modern science itself it would have excited just the same animosity, nay, probably very much more, for in fact its creed in some aspects is in most remarkable agreement with the revolutionary creed itself.
The result, then, is this—of atheism, that demoralizing palsy of human nature, which consists in the inability to discern in the universe any law by which human life may be guided, there is in the present age less danger than ever, and it is daily made more and more impossible by science itself: of revolt against the Christian law of fraternity, there is also less than ever in this age, and that redemption of the poor and that pacification of nations which Christianity first suggested are more prominent than ever among the aspirations of mankind. On the other hand, the organization of the Church seems ill-adapted to the age, and seems to expose it to the greatest danger; and, what is far more serious, the old elevating communion with God, which Christianity introduced, appears to be threatened by the new scientific theology, which, while presenting to us deeper views than ever of his infinite and awful greatness, and more fascinating views than ever of his eternal beauty and glory, denies for the present to him that human tenderness, justice, and benevolence, which Christ taught us to see in him.—Macmillan's Magazine.
- From a series of papers, in Macmillan's Magazine, on "Natural Religion."