THOUGH most persons who are not Agnostics will agree that it is legitimate and often very necessary to ask whether an alleged revelation is what it professes to be, there are many who shrink from the cognate and indeed preliminary question, what may be expected beforehand from a revelation, and what sort of line it is likely to take. In practice they will often argue with some boldness from the natural fitness of things, as that a revelation must be perfectly clear, or that it must be given alike to all men, or again that it must constitute some infallible authority or be embodied in an infallible book, or lay down some system of government in Church or State, or ordain some authoritative ceremonial of sacrifice or other worshipon the ground that it is the necessary business of a revelation to settle things like these beyond the risk of mistake. They will build whole systems without hesitation on assumptions of this kind as self-evident truths; yet when they are fairly confronted with the question, the men who were so positive just now will sometimes answer piously, that it would be rash to say beforehand what a revelation will be like, for we really have no faculties to deal with such a question. It will be whatever God may please to give us; and this is all that we can know beforehand.
It must be granted that in all ages much rashness has been committed in the matter. The natural man likes to walk by sight and riot by faith, and never quite understands that a mystery is of necessity partly known as well as partly unknown. He has no patience for the half lights of finite knowledge, and the parables and sacraments of life which speak of better things than reason can fully grasp. Light or dark? is his only question. If he cannot see his way quite clear, he will ask for some one good work that he may do it and enter into life, or at any rate some precise law that shall relieve him from the burden of thought and the responsibility of action. If he finds that he cannot do everything for himself, he wants everything done for him. So he is apt to take for granted either that revelation must make everything perfectly clear to reason, or that it will be a detailed system of arbitrary commands which reason must not presume to discuss.
Our question is not only legitimate, but necessary. We cannot discuss the genuineness of an alleged revelation in any other way than by comparing it with a standard already in our minds. The general idea must always come before the particular. Such a standard is likely to be more or less vague and incomplete, and to leave many things abrupt; but we cannot move a step in the matter without a standard of some sort. Indeed, we cannot help having a standard, for we cannot seriously contemplate the possibility of revelation without some belief in God's existence, and therefore some more or less definite ideas of his nature.
It may be said again from another point of view that our question is not scientific but purely speculative, and therefore unprofitable,that the only legitimate method is to reason back from ascertained facts to find out whether a revelation has been given, and if so, of what sort it was, and to make no theories except for the temporary purpose of focussing our thoughts or suggesting lines of study. The answer is that we shall not be making imaginary models of a world. The one sound method is simply to reason on ascertained facts according to their nature, backward or forward as occasion may require; so that if we can find facts prior to revelation, we are perfectly free to reason forward from themfrom what we know of God to what may be expected from him, from facts to their consequences, not from imaginations to castles in the air. We shall need to walk warily, but we are treading no forbidden ground. We shall fail as others have failed if we expect to see things in their full meaning sub specie ternitatis. Yet the failures of the past may help its towards the genuinely scientific success of pushing the veil of mystery a little further back. In this sense we shall find our way by the carcases of them that have gone before.
I invite your attention to an answer attempted near two hundred years ago. It may be more successful in clearing the question than it was in solving the problem.
Matthew Tindal was a man of mark. He was born during Cromwell's protectorate, and came up to Oxford with crude opinions of a High Church sort, so that he fell an easy prey to the Roman emissaries in James II's reign, though not for long. Early in 1688 he was convinced of the absurdities of popery, and settled down in life as a free-thinking churchman, and a formidable opponent of the independence of the Church upon the State preached by the High-fliers of Queen Anne's time. In 1706 his Rights of the Christiana Church, in defence of the Erastian constitution of England, drew forth more than twenty answers from the gladiators of the Church. Henceforth he was Satan's darling son to men like Francis Atterbury and his own old college tutor, the nonjuror Hickes. Tindal was an advocate of note in 1696, when John Toland raised the standard of Deism in his Christianity not Mysterious, and saw a whole generation of younger combatants pass away before he came forward himself, on the evening of life, to sum up on behalf of Deism the floating doubts of the eighteenth century in his Christianity as old as the Creation, published in 1730
The Deists are forgotten now, and even their conquerors are out of fashion. The literary person of our time is hardly equipped without a second-hand sneer at Butler. Yet those old-world questions were the crude beginnings of the great controversy on the possibility and meaning of revelation which seems gathering to its hottest battle in our generation; and Tindal was not unworthy of the place he held among its early leaders.
Like a true son of the eighteenth century, he begins with God as a creator and moral governor outside the world, and man as knowing him by reason, and by reason only. God is good, and can have no motive but the good of his creatures, so that he cannot have refused them the revelation which was needed to give them happiness. This Natural Religion Tindal describes as the belief in the existence of God, and the sense and practice of those duties which result from the knowledge we have by reason of him and his perfections, of ourselves and our imperfections, and of our relation to him and to his other creatures; so that Natural Religion takes in everything that is founded on the reason and nature of things. Like its author, it must he absolutely perfect, eternal, and unchangeable. It must be absolutely reasonable, for nothing but reasoning can improve reason, by which alone we know God. It must be perfectly clear and simple, else its purpose, which is the happiness of all men, would be defeated. It must be original and universal, for all men have equal need of it, and God wills all men to be saved. It must also be sufficientnot that all must have the same knowledge of it, but all must have sufficient knowledge. We cannot suppose that after men had been for many ages in a miserable condition, God thought fit to amend the eternal, universal Law of Nature by adding certain observances to it, not founded on the reason of things; and that those, out of his partial goodness, he communicated only to some, leaving the greatest part in their former dark and deplorable state.
Hence generally, he concludes, Revealed Religion cannot differ from Natural except in the mode of communication; else one or the other would be defective, and a reproach to its author. It cannot be more than a republication of Natural Religion; and anything further it may seem to contain, not being founded on nature and reason, cannot properly belong to it. Such additional matter must be either arbitrary (or positive) precepts, which imply that God changes his mind, or else unintelligible dogmasmere orthodox paradoxeslike the Trinity, which really tell us nothing because they mean nothing. If men have gone astray from Natural Religion, they have mostly been led astray by the priests, and by the idea that God has pleasure in cruelty. So much worse is superstition than Atheism. Christianity therefore, if rightly understood, is as old as Creation. Christ came to preach, not new duties but repentance for breach of the old; or, in other words, to free men from the load of superstition which had been mixed up with religion. His concern, as he said, was only with the sinners; and his commands extend not beyond moral things, leaving all questions of mere means to human discretion. Scripture is at most a secondary rule of life, for it depends on and constantly appeals to Natural Religion, which indeed is our only means of knowing even that God is not deceiving us. Moreover, it is obscure, uncertain, and in its literal sense often downright immoral. Yet if we depart from the literal sense, we are not honestly taking it for our guide. Therefore from first to last we have nothing but Natural Religion to rely on.
This is Tindal's position, stated as near as may be in his own words. We notice in the last clauses his appeal to the rooted superstition of the English, that the strict literal sense of a document is the plain meaning which no honest man will think of disputing. He is a thorough Puritan in this matter; and he is quite representative in his want of common sense, for even now by far the larger number of the popular (I do not mean the serious) objections to Christianity assume it as manifest that the Bible must stand or fall by its literal meaning. Yet a lawyer like Tindal might have remembered that even a clause of a will is not construed unconditionally in its literal sense without regard to the general meaning of the document and to other facts which may clear up the testator's intention.
Butler's is a work of wider scope, for he has various opponents in view; but so far as concerns Tindal, his main argument is purely critical. Far from fully stating his own beliefs, he consents to reason on opinions like the opinion of necessity, which he plainly tells us he does not believe, and leaves out doctrines of the utmost importance which he does believe, like the essential morality of acts. His main thesis as against Tindal is that parts of revelation not found in Natural Religion are not on that account to be rejected. He agrees that God is the creator and moral governor of the world, and that the purpose (not the scope) of Natural Religion is pretty much as Tindal states it; nor would he have cared to dispute its sufficiency for manapart from sin. To sinless beings in some other world it may be that God is pure benevolence; but to us he is a moral governor. Tindal's enormous oversight has not escaped him. The generality of mankind are so far from having that awful sense of things, which the present state of vice and misery and darkness seems to make but reasonable, that they have scarce any apprehension or thought at all about this matter, any way and sonic serious persons may have spoken unadvisedly concerning it. But
consider what it is for creatures, moral agents, presumptuously to introduce that confusion and misery into the kingdom of God, which mankind have in fact introduced; to blaspheme the Sovereign Lord of all; to contemn his authority; to be injurious to the degree they are to their fellow-creatures, the creatures of God. Natural Religion is not the simple and sufficient rule Tindal takes it for. Men generally cannot reason it out in its purity, and will not if they can; and in any case need a standing reminder of it. Moreover, divine goodness, with which, if f mistake not, we make very free in our speculations, may not be a bare single disposition to produce happiness,
perhaps an infinitely perfect mind may be pleased with the moral piety of moral agents in and for itself, as well as upon account of its being essentially conducive to the happiness of his creation. Yet further, the present life seems to be an education for another, so that we cannot expect to have everything quite clear in it.
Accordingly, Christianity is not a simple republication of Natural Religion, but an authoritative republication of it in its genuine simplicity, confirmed by fresh evidence, embodied in a visible church, and secured by express commands to all Christians to preserve it and transmit its benefits to future times. Besides this, it contains an account of a dispensation of things not at all discoverable by reason, carrying on by the Son and the Spirit for the recovery and salvation of mankind, who are represented to be in a state of ruin. We find then certain additional doctrines revealed, and sundry duties enjoined in consequence of them. These doctrines present no difficulties but such as we find in Natural Religion, which is accepted notwithstanding; and they have the further confirmation of miracle and prophecy. The duties arise in part directly from the facts revealedas if the Son of God is indeed our Saviour, Natural Religion itself will tell us that we owe certain duties to him. As for positive commandsthose whose grounds we do not seethey are certainly inferior to the moral precepts which are written in our hearts; but they are not therefore unimportant, for the fact, if fact it be, that they are of divine appointment lays us under an obligation to obey theman obligation moral in the strictest and most proper sense.
Tindal was no mean controversialist, but he has fared ill in the stronger hands of Butler. It can hardly be denied that on the admitted premises and within the limits of Butler's purpose his argument is triumphant. Others may dispute the premises, but the Deist can make no reply. Though the doubts of later times have shifted far away from Deism, Butler's method is a lesson for all ages, his arguments have often lost nothing of their force, and many of his grave warnings might have been written for the hasty thinkers of our time.
Nevertheless, the teaching of history has carried us far beyond the arguments of 1736. In the light of science we see now that the world is not a machine made once for all by some great engineer's hand from mad outside, but an organism slowly developed by a power working from within. Even Tindal was not without some idea of progress in revelation, as where he tells us that a special law was given to the Jews, or that a prohibition of usury would now be immoral. But these with him are only passing inconsistencies: to us they are commonplaces, for the idea of evolution dominates both history and religion. If it has destroyed some of the old teleological statements, it has restored them to us on a vaster scale, by forcing us to look for mind in the whole development, and to recognize in the physical world, and still more in the spiritual nature of man, no mere creatures of a divine will, but revelations of the divine nature. It has also taught us to abandon the barren idea of this life as mere probation, which meaner men gathered from Butler's words without noticing how carefully he explained it as education and training, and to see in this life's trials our preparation for some higher stage of development.
This glance back at the Deist Controversy and the changes the question has undergone in later times may suffice to indicate some of the conditions and some of the difficulties of the problem before us. When we essay it ourselves we shall be free to use all the resources of science and criticism, and to take useful hints wherever we can find them. Thus the Muslim idea of revelation gathers it up in a book, the Christian in a Person described as, he that liveth and was dead, and is alive for ever more. These are ideas we may find worth comparing with each other and with the best idea we can form in our own way; and we may find it useful to notice how far each system has in its historical career been true to its central thought.
Now I think we are free to begin our proper work.
In our discussion of the question what a revelation is likely to be, and what idea we can form beforehand of the lines it will take, we start from the fact already noticed, that there is no argument which stops short at the bare existence of God. As we have seen, every consideration which goes to verify our assumption that there is a God goes equally to show that he is a God of such or such a sort, and compels us to hold such or such definite beliefs about him. In fact, we cannot believe in the existence of anything whatever without some conception of its nature. We may call it the Unknowable, but we cannot believe that it exists unless we think we know something about it. The unknowable is the unthinkable.
The word God is one that ought not to be ambiguous. Theists1
and Antitheists are generally agreed that it means a personal Being of infinite rightness and infinite goodness, wielding infinite wisdom and infinite power. The existence of such a Being the Theist affirms and the dogmatic Atheist denies, while the Pantheist refines away his personality, the Polytheist his attributes, and the Agnostic tells us that with our faculties it is futile to discuss the matter. The answers are various enough; but there is no ambiguity in the question, Is there such a Being, or is there not?
We have coupled together rightness and goodness as referring to the divine nature, wisdom and power to its outward action; and this appears to be what Theists usually mean, though their words often do injustice to their thought. Even the Muslim tells us that Allah is merciful and forgiving; and however he may magnify the attribute of naked power, he will in the end hardly refuse to admit that he presumes it to be the instrument of a will which must have some definite quality, even if it be inscrutable to men. The division is also natural because it corresponds to a difference in the mode of recognition, for though we shall see presently that man acts as a single person, not as a bundle of faculties, it is still roughly true to say that while wisdom and power are recognized by intellect and understanding, rightness and goodness are known by conscience and feeling. Moreover, wisdom and power refer more specially to God's work in the world, rightness and goodness to his dealings with men, so that the former correspond to the causal and teleological argument from the structure of the physical universe, the latter to the ontological and moral argument from the constitution of man.
It is argued by some that however great the wisdom and power that work in the physical universe, they may still be finite if the universe itself is finite. Perhaps they may, though we cannot be sure that an infinite power might not prefer the infinite elaboration of a finite universe to the making of an infinite one; and such infinite elaboration is now more than ever suggested to us by the instability of the atom. At all events, the objection is not worth much, though it is Kant's objection. Our sidereal universe does appear to be finite, unless the rays of light are either absorbed in spacewhich so far as we know is most unlikely, or stopped by screens of nebulous matterwhich may be possible. Dark stars are hardly worth considering, for they could not occult many bright stars without such prodigious excess of numbers (at least thousands to one) as would spew itself in other ways. With these reserves we certainly seem at some points to see clear through the system to the voids of space beyond, and can even form some idea of the centuries that light itself would take to reach the distant border
Where frontier suns fling out their useless light.
But then say some from the other side, If the sidereal universe is finite, it cannot be the whole universe. Perhaps it is not. Space may be fuller than we know. The boundless ether may not be the barren desert which it seems. The everlasting burnings of the giant stars may teem with life, though no such life as ours. There may, for aught we know, be greater galaxies than ours for ever sunk in gulfs of space compared with which the distance of the farthest star is but a span. It may be that all this and more than this will meet our eyes whenever the veil of mortal sense is lifted. But let us leave these imaginations, and be content to take the universe as we find it. Consider first in its greatness the wisdom and power which orders the Movements of stars and planets, then in its delicacy that which pencils the flowers and scatters the feathery crystals of the snow. Assuming ex hypothesi that it is wisdom and power, can we safely deny that such wisdom and power as this would be able to do anything whatever which can be done by infinite wisdom and power? Action and reaction are equal in mechanics; but while reaction measures the power put forth, the power put forth is not necessarily the whole power with personal agents as it is with physical forces. If we see a man throw a stone twenty yards, we do not straightway take for granted that he could not have thrown it thirty. So, if we assume that the power which has made myriads of stars could not have made myriads more, we take for granted that it is a physical force and not a personal agent. On the common conception of space and time as infinite we must allow that, if the universe is limited, the power behind it is self-limited, for the unity of things forbids us to suppose it limited by some necessity greater than itself. In that case we must set down to wisdom and power greater than any assignable wisdom and power the manifestation of indefinite wisdom and power that is made to us in the physical universe; and this surely is the definition of infinite wisdom and power in terms of quantity. If, on the other hand, space and time are ideal, infinity becomes a question of quality, and these considerations of quantity have nothing to do with the matter.
But the idea of right seems infinite even in ourselves. It is a higher and more godlike thing than power, however great. It is not conditioned like physical things by space and time. That which under given circumstances is right here and now for us must also be right always and everywhere, and for every being who has a sense of right like ours. That sense has all the aspect of a power of a higher order, which only condescends to things of space and time when particular decisions have to be declared. In this independence of space and time rather than in barren extension over them lies the true conception of the infinite. No being of finite rightness could have given men in that idea the potency and promise of what would infinitely surpass himself. If the gods went their way and were satisfied, and the beasts went their way and were satisfied, the unrest of man can only mean that he is not rightly related to his present life. With the gods the ideal was supposed to be actual; with the beasts the actual is ideal, or easily may be: with man alone the two are parted elements which he is ever seeking to recombine. Hence the divine unrest which shews that here we have no continuing city, and drives us to seek for that which is to comefor civilized man has learned under Christian influences to put the timeless ideal in the future tense. Were man only a beast, he would go the way of the beasts and be satisfied: but being a beast, he is also something more than a beast; and that something whereby he differs from the beasts, belonging of necessity to a higher order, can be nothing else than some such an element of the divine as is theologically called the image of God.
We will not for the present pursue this further than to indicate some important consequences. If it be granted that the beasts have no knowledge of things divine, man's knowledge must be given by this divine element in which he differs from them. If there be gods, they must be in relation to manor indeed he could not even imagine their existence; and if there be one God, he must be the archetype of man, so that (pace Xenophanes and some of the moderns) anthropomorphic ideas may be sound, provided they idealize the best in man and not the worst. Thus, however God's rightness and goodness may excel ours in degree, it must be the same in kind. Infinite goodness must be of the same nature as our finite goodness if we are to recognize it as goodness at all, and the infinite Person who is above the imperfections of personality in us must stand in moral relations to ourselves, and therefore to all finite being that is or can be known to us.
The facts which concern us in our investigation cover the whole range of human knowledge, for every part of it is full of them. Let us look first at the physical universe. We see before us a system vast indeed beyond imagination, but, as we have reason to believe, not strictly infinite. And if it is not strictly infinite, the law of the radiation of heat would seem to shew that it is neither eternal in the past nor in anything like its present state eternal in the future. The discovery of radium shews indeed that the sun may have unsuspected sources of heat; but the fact remains, that any finite quantity of heat, however great, must be radiated into space within a finite time.
The system seems everywhere composed of much the same chemical elements, whatever may prove to be the real nature of such elements. The meteorites bring us from the depths of space no elements otherwise unknown to us, though sometimes they come in combinations not found on the surface of the earth. The spectrum of Arcturus differs little from that of the sun; and though other stars differ more, and the proportions of the elements may vary from star to star, and even from planet to planet, still the list of those we find is pretty much the same throughout. Moreover, the properties of matter seem always and everywhere the same. The raindrops and the sand-ripples of Palæozoic times are just like those of yesterday; and even in the furthest stars the phenomena of light and gravitation, so far as we can trace them, are exactly the same as here. We find no exception. The hemlock did not refuse to poison Socrates, or the cross to do its work on Jesus of Nazareth. Wherever we have found certain things following such and such conditions, we have so constantly found them following again what seem to be the same conditions, that we assumewhat we cannot demonstratethat they always will follow. We assume, for instance, that the sun which rose to-day will rise to-morrow, and that as A performed a chemical experiment yesterday, so B will be able to do it today.
Such an assumptionsuch a creation of faithis called a law of nature. But here we must note the meaning of our words. Nature in this connexion is the universe of physical phenomena in their sequence, but without regard to causes not physical. Thus it includes all physical phenomena in any way connected with will, but not the will itself. In a wider sense all personal action, or more generally all that exists, belongs to nature and is natural. We shall find the importance of this presently; but meanwhile we shall find it convenient to retain what seems now the prevailing use of the word, defining nature so as to make it co-extensive with science, which deals with sequences only, and reserving all beyond for philosophy, which deals with causes also. Thus nature will not be the sum of things, except for one who maintains that phenomena have no true causes at all.
The word law needs attention too, for a law of nature is not like a law divine or human, a general command issued by a superior, and enforced by a sanction. It is not even a rule of action, unless we go outside science to assume some person acting. If such a law be also a divine law, the man of science as such has nothing to do with the fact: and if he chooses to discuss the question, his scientific knowledge gives him no right to pronounce on it as an expert. When he speaks of law he means only that, so far as our experience goes, a phenomenon b has always followed a phenomenon a, and therefore always will follow it. Put more shortly, though not quite accurately, the same causes will always have the same effects. This principle of the uniformity of natural law is taken, and rightly taken, as one of the fundamental postulates of science. Its general truth is, of course, beyond dispute; but as regards its meaning, there are some things to notice.
In the first place, it is matter of faith, not matter of knowledge, that b will follow; for the fact is of the future, and the future cannot be known
before it comes to pass. However strongly and well grounded our belief, say that the sun will rise to-morrow, still it is only a belief. It is not knowledge, as we have knowledge that the sun rose to-day. In fact, the conclusion, Therefore b will follow, is utterly illogical, for we have no right to draw it on an induction limited to past experience, and therefore confessedly incomplete. We shall be stating a fact of our own experience if, instead of therefore b will follow, we say therefore we believe that b will follow; but now the phantom of logical reasoning is gone. The fact that b has followed a thousand times before is not logical proof that it will follow again; only, we believe it will. If M is a duke, this is not logical proof that he will not pick my pocket; only, I believe he will not. And if we answer that while it is physically possible for a duke to be a pickpocket, it is not physically possible for anything but b to follow a, we are begging the question. We may say that b has followed before, or that we believe it will follow again; but if we say that it must follow, we say what needs to be proved, and has never yet been proved. Our belief on incomplete inductions, that what has followed before will follow again, is not a conclusion from reasoning, but an instinct born with us, as much infantile as scientific. If experience confirms it, experience does not originate it.2
The next thing to notice is that it is not quite accurate to say that a is followed by b, for it is supposed that parts of the phenomenon a have no influence, and might be different. Thus it does not matter whether A or B performs the experiment, provided they do the same things. But the fact that A performed it and not B is a part of the phenomenon a; and if it is rightly set aside along with many other things as irrelevant, the fact remains that the scientific cause is not the whole phenomenon a, but a selection from it supposed to contain all the facts which influence the scientific effect. Similarly the scientific effect is not the whole phenomenon b, but a selection from it supposed to contain all the facts influenced by the scientific cause. In both cases, then, everything depends on the inclusion of all the relevant facts in the selection made. And though the risk of error may commonly be very small, we cannot safely take for granted that it may always be neglected. There is a question of selection here, and even scientific selection is not infallible.
But if the facts are rightly selected, there is room even then for mistake. There is always the possibility that a phenomenon a1, which we have not fully distinguished from a, will be followed by something differentas in fact happens at every discovery. And again, we may miss the distinction of a1 from a by failing to notice the difference of an effect b1 from the b we expected. In that case we have missed a discovery which remains open for our successors.
It must also be noted that though the uniformity of natural law is a sufficient postulate for science, which deals only with sequences, it is not sufficient for philosophy, which deals also with causes. In special studies we assume the results of other studies. Thus the geologist assumes the results of the chemist, and the historian those of the geographer, so far as he requires them. But philosophy, which deals with the sum total of things, has no right to take a postulate as final when we can get behind it. Now it is agreed on all handseven the Atheist will hardly deny itthat there is a power of some sort behind the uniformity observed in nature. This uniformity must be the outcome of such power, so that the final postulate must be that this power is of a sort which justifies our assumption that Nature is uniform. It is not enough to say that such power works uniformly, for this merely repeats the first assumption, and makes no link with the future. The only sufficient postulate is that such power is perfectly good and perfectly trustworthy. On no other can we be reasonably sure that natural law is uniform, much less that evolution will be upward, or even that the universe will not vanish into chaos to-morrow morning.
Now, if the uniformity of natural law is not a final assumption, but depends on another assumption behind it, we have no right to take it as finally true till we have examined it in the light of our truly final postulate. For aught we see yet, it may prove to be a close approximation, but not rigidly accurate. The fact that we have never seen it broken does not prove that it never has been broken, still less that it never will be broken. Though uniformity is evidently the rule, we must know something of the power behind nature before we can safely say for certain that there can be no exception to the rule. Moreover, trustworthiness implies personality, and a moral relation to ourselves; and though it may issue in uniform action, it is not bound to uniform action the same way as physical forces are bound.
Natural laws are nothing more than observed successions of phenomena; and if they are never broken, the reason is not that no power in the universe is able to break themfor this is more than we know, but that if they were broken we should cease to call them laws. The idea of cause (as distinct from sequence), or of constraining force in natural laws, is as foreign to science as that of moral value in them. What we mean by saying that the physical universe is governed by general laws is that knowledge is impossible unless the whole system is at least a rational unity, whatever else it be. And this means that if Force be its moving power, there must be one Force and no more; and if God, there must be one God and no more.