MY first duty here is to express my feeling of deep responsibility for the charge entrusted to me on behalf of the University of Edinburgh, to lay before you without fear or favour, affection or misliking, the best our God has given me to know upon the weighty subject of Natural Theology; and I pray him to give me strength and wisdom, that my words may not be quite unworthy of the great men who have spoken from this place before me.
Turning then, like my predecessors, to Lord Gifford's Deed of Foundation, I notice at once his direction “to treat this greatest of all possible sciences, and indeed in one sense the only science, as a strictly natural science, without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation”: and this direction I heartily accept. If I believe, as indeed I do believe, that the man who spake as never man spake also did the works which none other man did, I believe also that if we take a system as a whole and on its own skewing, it ought provisionally to justify itself as a reasonable possibility before we come to the particular evidence alleged in its favour. For instance, the historical fact of Christ's resurrection is an essential part of any system that can reasonably be called Christian; and if true, it must be the central fact of history. Still, if we leave disputed historical facts in suspense, the system as a whole, specially including that resurrection represented as the pledge of life won through death, ought to shew itself such a reasonable scheme as may possibly prove true when we come to the particular evidence for those facts. In other words, we can discuss Christianity to a certain distance without accepting its alleged miracles as true; but we cannot discuss it at all without accepting them as parts of the system. If we leave them out of it we shall not be discussing Christianity, but some figment of our own.
I understand then that Natural Theology is to be dealt with in a scientific spirit, “like astronomy or chemistry,” as our Founder says, and therefore with a reasonable regard to the particular nature of its subject matter, and with liberty to take account of any facts whatever which may seem to bear on it. And if ideas suggested by Christian teaching, for example, commend themselves to us on independent grounds, they ought not to be prejudiced by the fact that they have likewise commended themselves to a majority of civilized and thinking men ever since the third century.
An alleged special revelation, whatever it be, is in any case historical evidence that certain beliefs have been held: and as I read further, I am encouraged, “freely to discuss the nature, origin, and truth” of such beliefs—but as I understand, on grounds of reason only, without reference to (meaning reliance upon) any personal or institutional authority. All evidence of reason is admissible, but all authority must go for nothing. By grounds of reason I mean all facts of whatever nature which reason may judge relevant to the question in hand; and by reliance on authority I mean all weight allowed to the beliefs of persons or the teachings of institutions beyond their reasonable value as personal testimony. Such beliefs or teachings will often raise a presumption—sometimes a strong presumption—that we shall find evidence, and in some cases they lay us under a serious obligation to see for ourselves how the evidence really lies; but evidence they are not, except so far as they stand for personal testimony. Reliance on authority instead of reason is often passed off as a modest deference to skilled opinion; in fact, it is pure scepticism.
An unhesitating appeal to reason as our only test of truth seems to be not only an admissible method of study, but the only method of study consistent with regard to truth, and the only method which can issue in serious beliefs. I am aware that it has not always found favour among Christians—the Latin Church in particular has usually sided with the Pharisees in rejecting it—but it was the method of Jesus of Nazareth, who came, as he said, that he might bear witness of the truth, and never based his teaching on any mere authority of his own. Positive as that teaching is, for he never hints a doubt, or even speaks the word Peradventure, he offers every word he speaks to the judgment of reason, and in every word assumes that reason is able to judge of truth presented to it. To reason—the verdict of the whole man—he appeals throughout; and no man who bears his name need grudge at having to lay his own appeal before the same supreme and final court of judgment.
This may be the place to note that in the phrase “special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation,” Lord Gifford seems to identify a special with a miraculous revelation. If so, I do not feel bound to follow him in this particular use of words. A revelation may, for aught we know yet, be special without being miraculous; and in any case the two ideas will most conveniently be kept apart till we come to the question whether they are really distinct.
There is one thing more to be said before we leave the Deed of Foundation. I notice the Founder's direction that these lectures are to be public and popular, and open to all confers. This direction I will endeavour to obey by making myself as plain as I can to the “general and popular audience” of which he speaks, without parade of learning and without straining after novelty. Natural Theology is a very old battle-ground: its questions have been again and again fought out by the keenest intellects of all ages, and we cannot hope to do more than look at some of them from the particular standpoint of a student of history in our own time. Our task will be rather the verification and re-survey of old truth than the more brilliant one of discovering new truth, though perhaps that also will not be wholly wanting.
Our subject being the Knowledge of God, we shall have to take account of all means by which men have in any age thought it possible to get such knowledge. But if there be knowledge on man's part, there must be revelation on God's part; for the cannot reasonably limit our conception of revelation to supposed special exceptional or miraculous communications. Any fact which gives knowledge is a revelation. If particular facts reveal God, they do so only by indicating a certain character; and though a miracle, if such there were, would be likely to command attention, there is no reason why it should indicate character more distinctly than common facts. If so, revelation and the knowledge of God are correlative terms expressing two sides of the same thing, and equally related to all things which can in any way give that knowledge.
To sum up the proposed investigation at once, we shall first discuss very shortly the question whether revelation in the wide sense just given is possible, and then first examine its nature (supposed possible) and the form which it may be expected to take, so far as it can be discussed on grounds of reason only. Afterwards, and this will be the second part of our work, we shall have to compare our results with the conceptions of it which men have actually formed.
Our object in taking shortly the possibility of revelation is simply to keep the work before us within reasonable bounds. It would have been still shorter to assume it summarily: and we might fairly have done so, for if men have any knowledge even of God's existence, they can only get it from facts which indicate it; and these facts, whatever they be, will constitute a revelation. But we shall find it better formally to review the assumptions implied in that possibility, because the conditions on which revelation depends may be our best guide to its nature. The study of this will be the hardest part of our work, for we are at once confronted with Butler's warning, that we are not competent judges beforehand of what may be expected in a revelation. That is true, in the sense Butler meant it; but it is not strictly pertinent, for his controversy with the Deists was about a particular revelation, so that the larger problem we have to deal with was not fully before him. Moreover it was not so much his business to find out how much can be said, as to shew that certain things cannot safely be said. It may be that we shall find some help not only in Butler's own argument, but in things that were unknown or obscure in Butler's time. At all events, we are free to ask questions and find for ourselves the limits of our knowledge. For example, if there be a revelation, what will be its main purpose? To what faculties will it speak, and how will it be related to common knowledge? Will it be general or special, or both in different parts? Will it be delivered once for all complete, or will it be in any way a subject of development? Can we see any lines which it is likely to follow, or any which it will certainly not follow? Though full answers to questions like these may be far beyond our reach, I have confidence that reverent and careful study will not be thrown away on them. Butler was right in pleading the ignorance of man, or more precisely our incompetency through ignorance, against the hasty theorizing of the Deists; yet there was something in their shallow optimism which we have hardly mastered even yet. We stand indeed on higher ground than Butler, for the revolutions of the nineteenth century have been a mighty revelation. They have thrown forward with impressive emphasis the old Teutonic thought of progress and development, and the old Christian teaching of the dignity and worth of man as man, or as the Christians would say, in virtue of the image of God within him. If science has firmly linked our body to the beasts that perish, antichristian thought itself at times has donned the prophet's mantle, discoursing of our true affinity and likeness to the mysterious force that works behind that veil of Isis which no mortal has lifted yet. Looking backward to the marvellous things our fathers witnessed, and forward to the still mightier changes dawning on our children, it would seem that the time is come to take up the other side of Butler's work, and once more essay the problem of the Deists, with more of knowledge, and less I hope of random speculation.
After we have formed the best idea we can form beforehand of revelation, we shall have to compare with it the conceptions we find in history. On this part of our work it will be enough for the present to say that I shall devote myself chiefly to the three great lines of ancient thought significantly joined by Pilate's title written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and to the Christian developments which came after them, including in the latter much semichristian and some antichristian thought. Of India and China I am not competent to speak at first hand; and other old religions are of less importance. Excepting Egypt and Persia, they mostly stand aside from the main course of history. Many of them indeed are too crude to help us much, for it is a great mistake of method to explain higher developments by lower, instead of lower by higher. Symbols may indicate realities, but the realities must interpret symbols. In any case we shall not lose much by a certain limitation of our work, for it is historically evident that the triple cord of ancient thought united in the Gospel has been the main line of the development of human thought in matters of religion.
Waiving, then, the argument that the possibility of revelation, if not the fact of it, can hardly be disputed if there is any truth at all in religion, or even in science, it may be convenient now to run over formally the conditions of its possibility. These are four in number. If there is a God—a personal Being above us and not below us—I think we may take it as possible that lie may have something to reveal; and then if he is able to reveal it, if he may be supposed willing to do so, and if man is able to receive it—on these four conditions revelation is possible, and the question whether and how far there is a revelation in such and such facts is simply a question of evidence. A full discussion of these conditions would carry us too far; but we shall have to notice the general character of the arguments which seem to bear on them.
When I speak of God, I mean a personal Being above us and not below us, a Being to whose greatness religion pointed from the first, and in whose goodness it has more and more in the course of ages found its final rest and peace. All religion (as distinct from magic) is a trustful communion with some such Being, however it may be debased by mean conceptions of what is great or good. It is not pure brute force before which the savage crouches; and civilized peoples always looked for something better in their gods. In beasts they worshipped knowledge beyond their own, and in men they reverenced wisdom and beauty quite as much as mere strength, and even those who stripped their God of human feeling thought him so much the greater for the want of it. The nobler the man, the purer his worship, the more clearly we see the soaring aspiration of all reasoning religion to a Being whose goodness around us bears witness to his greatness above us. It was a new thing in modern times when the unreason of the Agnostic and the Pessimist looked downward for a deity instead of upward. They do well to call it the Unknowable or the Unconscious, for they would only make confusion if they took the name of God in vain by using it of something lower than the beasts of Egypt.
The existence of God cannot be logically demonstrated. There are many proofs, but there is no demonstration; and those who insist on having one must be plainly told that we have none to give. But neither can we logically demonstrate the existence of self or of the world—of the subject or the object, if we prefer the philosophical terms. We cannot deduce it by self-evident logic in the style of Euclid, because we have no self-evident axioms behind it. The world and self and God are alike in being final postulates of thought, and therefore incapable of demonstration, so that a man who takes no other proof is bound to deny them all, as in fact they have all been denied by various forms of ancient and modern scepticism. The existence of God is not the less certain for being the necessary postulate of every argument instead of the logical conclusion of one argument. The uniformity of nature, which some set against it, is a postulate also assumed without demonstration. Each of them is an assumption—a theory if you will—and there can be no logical demonstration of a theory. The only proof of it we can have is when we find that it describes facts, or in common language, explains facts. Such proof is always open to objection; but in proper kind and quantity it is conclusive to every man in his right mind.
We are not taking the immoral position that insufficient evidence may be treated as sufficient; but we cannot help seeing that evidence which is not demonstrative is accepted as sufficient in almost every act of life. Neither do we hold, as some slander us, that the wish to believe is the right to believe; but we do contend that every question must be determined by the sort of evidence corresponding to its nature, and that we have no right to demand some other sort. Thus we accept the theory of gravitation because it describes a vast number of relevant facts; and we reject that of transubstantiation because it explains nothing but the one difficulty it was invented to explain, and only explains that at the cost of much irrationality. A theory is easily fitted to any one difficulty; the test of it is its explanation of other difficulties. Now the existence of God is a theory which explains a world-wide mass of facts, for though the presence of sin is a real difficulty, we shall see that there is no reason to think it fatal. The silence of science is not even a difficulty. If Laplace was right in saying that science has neither need nor room for God, lie was right only because the scope of science is limited. As commonly defined, it describes phenomena, not origins, and deals with sequences, never with true causation. Moreover, every science begins rightly enough by selecting some facts or aspects of facts as relevant, and setting aside others as irrelevant; and though one science will often take up factors rightly neglected by another, we have no security that science, meaning the sum of all the sciences, will somewhere or other take full account of all such factors. A method, then, which never gets beyond incomplete accounts of things cannot decently pretend to finish with complete descriptions of them. If the physicist finds no God, the reason may be, not that there is no God, but that it is no more his proper business than the coal-heaver's to look for God.
In fact, the question whether Science can have anything to say on “the hypothesis of a God” is simply a matter of definition. A great advance was made in the eighteenth century towards a clear separation between origins and causes on one side, phenomena and sequences on the other—the one set of questions being assigned to philosophy and religion, the other reserved for science. This is the usual division, and much the most convenient, for it corresponds to a difference of subject-matter and a difference of method; for we cannot experiment on origins as we can on phenomena. The distinction is real; and if Religion used to ignore it, Science has no excuse for following her bad example now. The pretence of determining phenomena by religion, and the pretence of discovering origins by the methods of science, are returns to a pre-scientific past; and for unreason there is nothing to choose between them.
If then science is limited, as is now usual, to questions of phenomena and sequence, it manifestly cannot have anything to say on questions of cause and origin; and if we extended it to such questions we should need different methods, for we should have to take in many considerations rightly ruled out from an investigation limited to phenomena and sequences. There is no need for confusion, unless we assume either that there are no causes and origins, or that there are none which we can know. In that case, of course, nothing exists for us beyond sequences of events. Only our assumption is philosophical, not scientific, for a science of sequences only is self-condemned the moment it lays down any doctrine about causes and origins.
But the two theories of gravitation and of the existence of God are not on a level. Gravitation is only a provisional theory, good till something better is discovered, for nobody supposes it to be the complete and final explanation of planetary and stellar motions. It is a theory which has described them excellently; but we assume without hesitation that there is something behind it, so that if ever we discover that something we shall be able to merge gravitation in some higher theory which will not only describe all that gravitation describes, but take in facts now unknown, or at least unknown in their connexion with astronomical phenomena. Yet even this higher theory will be as provisional as gravitation itself, and liable to displacement by some still higher theory. But the existence of God is a final theory, not simply because we cannot get beyond it, but because the personal action of such a Being is a true cause and final explanation of the universe, of persons as well as things. As all science assumes that nature is a rational system, so thought itself consciously or unconsciously assumes that there is a God. Atheism is not even untrue; it is universal confusion. If we think things out instead of stopping half way, we are driven to a theistic assumption.
Some theory we must make, if we are to reason at all. We may suppose that there is a God, or that there is no God; or we may set aside the question by supposing that we have no faculties to deal with it. Theism, Non-Theism, and Agnosticism are exactly alike in being theories, or rather groups of theories; and there is no reason for preferring one to another unless it describes facts better. They have all had supporters, and therefore presumably something to say for themselves; but Theism has been the creative force in history, and remains the general belief of serious men. Religion without reason is painfully common, and reason without religion is not unknown; but there can be no rational religion outside Theism. The Pantheist cannot worship, except so far as he personifies his god. The Agnostic has an ethical system he cannot make rational without a god; but he rightly refuses to worship the unknown Force lie sets to hold the place of God. Others may have religions: only the Theist has a religion which can be rational.
If religion is not quite universal, it is very nearly universal. If tribes without religion can be found, they are found among the most degraded of savages. If individuals of the most cultivated nations tell us that they have no religion, what they tell us is not always the fact, for men often think they have no religion when they have only thrown off sonic particular religion. If indeed they have no religion, they have none only because they have really thrown it oil. The atheist, like the Christian, is not born but made, though made by an opposite process. Buddhism is the only great system which can be said in any sense to ignore religion; and even that is no real growth of irreligion, but a religious reaction from an unsatisfactory religion, and soon gathered round it religious observances in abundance. Thus even Buddhism supports the general conclusion that religion is a primary instinct of human nature.
One of the simplest—as well as one of the deepest—arguments which point in the direction of Theism is the admitted fact appealed to by Lotze, Royce, and others, that things (including ourselves) influence each other in definite ways, and are therefore not independent. Action between two independent things is not made possible by the mediation of a third thing or of any number of things which are ex hypothesi independent of both. Contact may be a condition of such action, but it is no sort of explanation of it. But if we suppose a relation of any kind between them, we must admit that they are not independent of each other. And if things are not independent of each other, they must all (including ourselves) be dependent on something else. If then they act on each other, they must be direct or indirect products or manifestations of one or more powers working through them; and ultimately of one power only, for independent powers are independent things and therefore impossible. And this power will on its side have relations to things, for relations cannot be one-sided, and will show its unity, as all unity must be shewn, in the differences of things. And if the system is rational—and we cannot reason about it at all without assuming so much—we cannot escape the conclusion that the power behind it is also rational.
This may suffice to suggest a theory of a more or less theistic sort; but as we go further we are driven by many considerations to the more definite theory of a personal God.
We are driven to it by the moral necessity of finding for persons as well as things a cause beyond the scientific forces which cannot work themselves, and the scientific sequences which cannot be more than effects of deeper though still insufficient “causes.” We are driven to it again for the origin of that life and consciousness which no scientific alchemy has yet been able to derive from matter. Yet again we are driven to it for the origin of conscience with its mysterious whisperings of duty and with its Titanic tempests of remorse, which no Naturalistic sleight-of-hand can trace back to the great twin brethren, Matter and Force. Collateral products and psychophysical parallelism are words to conjure with; but no conjuring can get conscience out of matter. We are driven to our assumption by matter with its mysteries of order and development, by life with its mysteries of thought and conscience. Must we have logical demonstration of that which underlies logic, or must we see God in the sky, as Lalande scoffed, or get him into our laboratories for analysis, before we are persuaded? Christians are not the only people who walk by faith and not by sight. We all do it, and must do it every moment of our life. Even as we venture from step to step, whether of common life or of the abstrusest scientific argument, in faith that the sequences of nature will not fail us, so we wing our way from earth to heaven in faith that these sequences are not without a cause.
This is the theistic challenge; and, so far as I can find, it has never been answered.
Attempted replies have mostly confused the issue as between origin and development, cause and method, concrete facts and scientific abstractions; and some of them summarily forbid us to ask for causes at all. In fact, science as defined by its own advocates has nothing to do with cause or origin, and only deals with concrete facts by abstracting from them. For instance, there seems reason to believe that the sidereal universe is finite, both in space and time; but if it were eternal, it would none the less need a cause. Given a series of sequences of which no one is caused by those before it, we do not reach a true cause by taking an infinite number of them. We do not solve a problem by the easy method of adjourning it to infinity. If a cause is needed for a finite series, it is equally needed for an infinite series; and no cause can be sufficient unless it works continuously along the series: and if matter and force do not now constitute such a cause, there is no reason to suppose that they ever did.
So too of life. If all life were definitely traced back to a single germ, that germ would still have to be accounted for, and would be no easier to account for than the whole complex of life which has arisen from it. Its “simplicity” would be delusive, involving as it would all that has ever been evolved from it. In the midst of inorganic matter it must have arisen, but as a solitary object of a higher order, for the gulf between is yet unbridged, and moreover never can be bridged, till scientific proof is found that matter is not inert, but can of itself produce life.1 It is random guesswork to bring life hither in the crevices of a meteorite from some other world. Such a theory is full of difficulties, has no evidence in its favour, and at best only moves the difficulty one step further back. And it is worse than random guesswork to lay down the law, that life “must” have come from matter, not on evidence, but simply to round off a theory.
Yet after all it matters little. Life is life, with all its mystery; and that mystery is no way diminished by any particular theory of its origin. If it did arise from matter, the right conclusion would riot be that life is less wonderful, but that matter is more wonderful than we supposed. The mystery would remain exactly what it was before, and we should not have gained a single step towards an explanation of it. The only difference would be that we should cease to speak of matter as inert. The change might confound the Deist, who believes in a distant engineer; but the Christian might fairly reply, that he for one will not presume to decide what may or may not be produced from matter by the immanent working of a living God.
So also of conscience. Rudimentary it may have been, like other things in the far past, and some of its outcomes revolting; but there it was. The oldest Babylonians had a conscience as real as our own, for however their judgment of what is right or wrong may have differed from ours, they were just as clear as we are that some things are right and others wrong. Conscience may have been shaped historically by subtle selfishness and social sanctions; but it cannot be resolved into these, and indeed is often sternly opposed to both, and therefore cannot have been developed out of them. The particular judgments of right and wrong which these may explain are surface matters: the sense itself of right and wrong is what has to be accounted for; and it is as distinct from the sense of utility as that is from the sense of beauty. There is no accounting for it as a function of animal life, far less as a function of matter. Physical processes belong to one order, the sense of guilt to another.
Coming now to the question whether God supposed existent is able to give a revelation, we are at once confronted with one of the most significant of all the facts we shall have to deal with. Every argument which goes to verify our assumption as regards the bare existence of God goes equally to prove that he is a God of a certain character, so that each as it is accepted compels us to say something definite about him. Thus if he is the final cause of all causes, he must have power to be a sufficient cause. If lie is the ultimate origin of life and personality, lie must have life and personality himself. If he has given us a moral sense, he must himself be its concrete embodiment. An agnostic attitude at this point is not even decently self-consistent. If a force works through all things, we ought to have ample material for finding out something of its nature; and if it is known to work by law, we know something about it, and it cannot be utterly inscrutable. The agnostic position is as if Euclid worked out his demonstration complete, and then turned round of a sudden to dispute the Q.E.D. He is not reasoning, but simply refusing to reason. When Herbert Spencer tells us that “the Power manifested throughout the universe, distinguished as material, is the same Power which in ourselves wells up in the form of consciousness,” he comes very near—if we will only think it out—to the Christian belief in “a universe which is everywhere alive,” not with life of its own, but through the immanence of a living God. It is a juggle of words to answer that we have “no strict knowledge,” meaning scientific knowledge. If we cannot weigh or analyse God, neither can we weigh or analyse many things whose existence is unquestioned—our neighbour's love or hatred, or indeed our neighbour himself, for example. We know them only by inference from outward signs; and if such knowledge is valid in their case, why should not similar knowledge of God be valid also? The only way in which the Agnostic can come to terms—after a fashion—with reason is by maintaining that partial knowledge is no knowledge at all; that if we do not know the ultimate mystery of a thing, we have no knowledge of it at all. And this is a position which destroys the reality of all knowledge, and therefore the validity of all reasoning; for if there is any one truth on which all serious thinkers are agreed, it is that no single thing is completely known to us. Omnia abeunt in mysterium. If therefore we cannot trust partial knowledge as far as it goes, there is nothing left which we can trust.
If God is the ultimate cause of matter, life, and conscience, it is hardly possible to dispute his power to give a revelation, if he so please. As we are making no suppositions about its character, we will not ask now whether matter, life, and conscience are not themselves a revelation; but surely the power which was able to cause man's existence must a fortiori be able to send him a message. It need not be in spoken words, much less written in a book: anything whatever by which one person conveys his thought to another makes a message. The beasts can speak to us: is God lower than they? No matter yet whether man would be able to receive a message: our question is whether God would be able to send it. The only obstacle we can imagine is a severance between God and man so complete that even God cannot reach across it. Such a position might be taken with some show of reason by the Deist, who does make a severance as soon as he has got past the work of creation, though it is not open to the Agnostic, whose unknowable Force co-operates with all the forces of the physical world. Yet even the deistic severance will not suffice, for it is no result from the ultimate nature of things, or from any intrinsic fitness of right and wrong, but simply the present method of the divine government. So far from being unable to bridge it over, God has already reached across it, first in creation, then to give what the Deist calls natural religion, however unwilling he may be to give a further special revelation. However, the answer is simple. A severance which puts it beyond God's power to give a revelation must result from the ultimate nature of things, and equally put it beyond his power to cause the existence of the world. If he has ever touched the world at all, and still more if he is immanent in it, there can hardly be any reason before-hand for doubting his power to touch it for the purpose of giving a revelation. His willingness is another question, which comes next.
Is it, then, a tenable supposition that God may be willing to give a revelation? The question must be put quite generally, because for anything we know yet to the contrary there may be particular reasons why a particular revelation should not be given at a particular time, to particular men, or in a particular manner. If the Koran, for instance, be such a revelation, it might have been choked out between Rome and Persia before they were weakened and demoralized by the great strife of Chosroes and Heraclius; or if the Gospel, the fulness of time was hardly come for the universal Family till the universal Empire had arisen to clear the way. We can see that a message once impressed on stiff-necked Israel had a better prospect of safe keeping than in the hands of unstable Edom, and that a message given to Toltecs or Chinese might have taken centuries to reach the central shores of Greece and Syria; and it is equally clear that a mere worship or a mere philosophy which appealed to heart or mind alone would leave the half of human need unsatisfied, and that a message revealed only in flaming fire would have to be respectfully forgotten, if it was not to put reason to permanent confusion. But particular objections are not enough. Revelation cannot be pronounced impossible on the score of God's unwillingness unless some general objection can be shewn, covering either all times, all persons, all places, or all modes of action in the matter.
Such an objection is often found in a view of natural law widely current among ourselves. The world, it is said, is worked entirely by uniform natural sequence; and if there is a God to give a revelation, this uniform natural sequence must express his nature, or at least his will, so that revelation being a breach of it is not only will, so that revelation being incredible but unthinkable, for it represents God as willing at once the sequence and the breach of it, which is absurd. This is the argument: and if uniform natural sequence fully expresses the will of God, and if revelation is a breach of it, there is no reply. Bradlaugh's picture of the great monkey in heaven stood so far for perfectly sound argument. It was a fair caricature, all the more offensive for its truth, of the irrational idea, still very common among Christians, that the proof of revelation lies precisely on this, that it breaks the natural sequence. Well, does it? In the first place, the world is not entirely worked by uniform natural sequence, unless our consciousness of freedom is a delusion, for natural sequence is deflected at every moment when forces are co-ordinated by personal action. I cannot even catch a ball without so co-ordinating the action of my arms as to deflect the natural sequence that a ball thrown up falls to the ground; but the “law” of gravitation is not broken, for the weight on my hand shows that it is acting still. If the answer be that personal action must be included in our conception of what is natural, this may be granted as a matter of definition. Only, in that case any similar co-ordinating action of a personal God (if such there be) must be included as well as our own. The decisive question is not the definition of words, but the reality of freedom, divine and human. If God and man are not entirely subject to the uniform sequences we find in the physical world, the result of personal action differs from that which uniform sequence would otherwise give; and this difference is not abolished when both are included in one definition. Is there or is there riot a breach of sequence when it is deflected by personal action? If there is, we must cease to speak of sequence as uniform, for we see such breaches every day. If not, then even so-called miracles considered as personal action are so far credible beforehand. It may indeed be said that while man's action is uncertain, God cannot be supposed to vary from his own law. But the “law” of the physical world is not a self-acting force: it is only a theory of our own to describe sequences imperfectly known; and there is no reason to think that with our present powers we shall ever come to a perfect knowledge of them. Natural “law” not including personal action cannot be a perfect expression of God's nature or will, though it must be true so far as it goes. At all events, the part of it known to us cannot be more than an imperfect expression which leaves room for a further expression by other means, if other means there be. Any such further expression must of course harmonize with that already known; but we may expect it to give us a different point of view, and most likely not to be another such series of uniform sequences as we find in the physical world. If natural “law”is to be a perfect expression of God's nature or will, it must include personal action, and that as its highest part; and if freedom is real—a fact we know as directly as we know any natural sequence—personal action is not uniform. If therefore natural “law,” so far as we know it, is not uniform in its highest part, we have no right to assume that a fuller knowledge of the universe would reveal to us nothing but uniformity. To put it shortly, any further expression there may be will not contradict what we know already; but we cannot take for granted that it will follow the lower line of uniformity rather than the higher line of freedom.
A second objection came into view with the Copernican astronomy, played a great part in the eighteenth century, and underlies much current thought in our own time, though it does not always come to the surface. We are told that if the earth were the centre of the universe, with sun, moon, and stars created to give it light, man as its ruler would hold a position of great dignity, and might possibly be not unworthy to receive a revelation; but it is absurd to suppose that the ruler of the great sidereal system would give one to the inhabitants of an insignificant planet like this—one among millions, and one of the least of them. Now let us look at the ideas which are needed to make this objection reasonable. It must be thought, then, that the importance of heavenly bodies varies in a general way with their size, so that while the sun is more important than the earth, Arcturus and Capella are likely to be more important than the sun. It is also supposed that there must be an indefinite number of stars, or at least planets, inhabited like the earth. It is further assumed that God's care is limited to great things, and it is taken for granted that spirit in man has no indefinite superiority over matter.
Without these assumptions the objection falls at once; yet none of them can be proved, and such knowledge as we have weighs heavily against all but one of then. It is certain of sun, moon, and stars, and nearly certain of the planets (Mars and Venus at most excepted), that they are no seats of any life at all like ours. Stars no doubt may have planets, and if none are known the fault may be in our telescopes; but if their history resembles the earth's, very few of them can at a given time be in the particular stage of evolution suited for any such life as ours. However, it is hardly worth while to discuss hypothetical inhabitants of hypothetical planets. Nor does the theory of evolution give any countenance to the belief that life is not of a higher order than matter. As we shall see presently, its results point with emphasis the other way, and if this be so the earth with life may be of more worth than the rest of the universe without life. But the worst fallacy is the assumption that God cares only for great things. A more unscientific position could hardly be imagined. There is no careless work in Nature. A gnat is made as accurately as a man, a microscopic Heliopelta turned as skilfully as a watchcase. If there is a God at all, things like these must be his doing, by whatever laws he does them. And if the evidence is overwhelming, that the minute things of the earth are not beneath his attention, we cannot assume that the earth itself and man are in such sense insignificant as to make it likely beforehand that he is too full of other work to give a revelation. This difficulty at all events is imaginary.
A third objection is less commonly made, though to my own mind it seems to raise more serious doubts than either of the former. What of sin? By sin I mean something more than the existence of ignorance and animal passion, and something different from physical evil, and from the unripeness and imperfection of our present stage of growth. I mean the fact witnessed by conscience, that by fault of our own we are very far gone from the moral law which is written in our hearts. We are not now concerned with the evolution of sin, on which science has thrown such unexpected light, or with its relation to the neutral passions of the animal nature, but simply with the present fact of its existence. This is a fact with which many schools of thought have dealt superficially. It is meaningless, of course, to those who deny the existence of a moral law, or seek refuge from it in some theory of determinism. Let them make their peace as best they can with the awful figure of Remorse, the horrible Medusa's head which once revealed, the mightiest passions of human nature, and “the will to live” itself, fall dead before it. Others also, men of just renown, have practically explained away the idea of sin. Ovid is not counted among the philosophers, yet there is a deeper thought in his
Video meliora proboque, Deteriora sequor
than in the resolution of sin into ignorance by Socrates, which seems to miss its relation to the will. Sin is not indeed the primary fact of human nature, and it would be a great mistake to base religion on the consciousness of sin; but we have reason to think it a very grave fact, especially when we consider in the light of modern science the far-reaching and enduring consequences of personal action. If the moral law be any expression of God's nature, or even of his will, it cannot be a batter of indifference to him that we have disobeyed the law which he set before us, and done all the evil that is done on the face of the earth. There is something, however, to set against this; for if our evil-doing is an offence which may, for aught we know, keep back a revelation, the evil condition into which we have brought ourselves is an appeal to him which may, for aught we know, call forth a revelation beyond that which is implied in the very fact of disobedience. Be that as it may, the existence of sin would seem at all events fatal to any summary assumption that he must give some further revelation. All that can be added at this stage of the argument is that neither is it safe to dogmatize the other way, by laying down for certain that he will not.
Our last question remains. If the possibility of revelation is not hindered by any want of power or want of willingness on God's part to give it, may it not be hindered notwithstanding by want of power on man's part to receive it? Want of willingness on his part, and the extent to which it may defeat the purpose (whatever that be) of the revelation, we need not now discuss; for if a revelation is given at all, it is equally given whether man will hear or whether he will forbear. But supposing him willing to receive a revelation, has he the power? Such power cannot be less than power to verify its rationality, its origin, and its moral character, and to understand what it requires us to be or to do. Some find that power in the understanding only, others in the convergent faculties of the whole man, others again in some peculiar and mysterious power of intuition; so that there is a very considerable body of somewhat miscellaneous opinion agreed that in one way or another he has the power required. But at opposite ends of the scale stand two groups of thinkers who deny it. Extremes meet, as usual; and are more nearly allied to each other than to intermediate forms of thought. The Agnostics of belief and the Agnostics of unbelief are heartily agreed that man as man has no faculties to receive a revelation. This fundamental position they hold in common, and there the wiser of them stop. It is a secondary development when others introduce an infallible authority of some sort, somehow (which on their theory must mean miraculously) empowered to declare the truth, and therefore claiming from us obedience without regard to reason, which they consider essentially misleading. Both groups are entangled in the general bad logic of Agnosticism, which makes the fact that we cannot find out the Almighty to perfection an excuse for not trying to find out anything at all. But the more advanced group is hampered by the further difficulty that the infallible authority which is to be obeyed without regard to reason cannot be recognized except by reason; and the reason which is not competent to recognize a revelation must be equally incompetent to recognize an authority which can only be declared by revelation.
Upon the whole there appears to be no proof that a revelation is impossible. We shall therefore go on to study its nature as that of something we may find in history, without any misgivings that we are discussing an impossible conception, a Chimœra bombinans in vacuo.
It is too soon yet to judge whether Mr. Butler Burke's interesting discoveries will be finally verified. But if they are fully confirmed, as they very well may be, they will prove only that matter can produce life under our direction. The, question whether it can produce life of itself—that is to say, without our direction, will stand exactly where it stood before. Should this second question ever be answered in the affirmative, it will be a result of the highest significance; but, as we shall see presently, it no way touches our argument.