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A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 4: Have We A Revelation?

By Robert Anderson


      SCEPTICISM is "not a permanent resting-place for human reason." The knowledge that there is bad money in circulation does not make us fling our purse into the gutter, or refuse to replenish it when empty. The sceptic tries a coin before accepting it, but when once he puts it in his pocket, his appreciation of it is, for that very reason, all the more intelligent and full. A convinced doubter makes the best believer.

      As Lord Kelvin declares, "Scientific thought is compelled to accept the idea of creative power." With an open mind, therefore, and unwavering confidence the true sceptic acknowledges "the beneficent Creator of the universe." And in no grudging spirit, but honestly and fully, he will own the obligations and relationships which this involves. Religion is implied in the acknowledgment of God. And further, this acknowledgment removes every a priori objection to the idea of a revelation. It creates indeed a positive presumption in its favour. For if we are the offspring of a "beneficent Creator," it is improbable that, in a world so darkened by sorrow and doubt, He would leave us without guidance, and without light as to our destiny.

      At all events, our belief in God makes it incumbent on us to examine any alleged revelation which is presented to us with reasonable credentials. If some one brings me what purports to be a message or letter from my brother, I may dispose of the matter by answering, " I have no brother"; but if I possess an unknown lost brother, I cannot refuse to receive the communication and to test its claims on my attention.

      But here we must keep our heads. There is no sphere in which the functions of the constable are more needed. The existence of a lost brother is no reason for sheltering impostors. Our belief in God is no reason for abandoning ourselves to superstition, or submitting to be duped by foolish or designing men.

      Yet another caution is needed here. We have now reached ground where the judgment of men of science is of no special value whatever. So long as it is a question of investigating and describing the facts and phenomena of nature, we sit at their feet with unfeigned admiration of their genius and industry; but when it becomes a question of adjudicating upon the evidence with which they furnish us, they must give way to those whose training and habits of mind make them better fitted for the task. We place the very highest value upon their testimony as experts in all matters within their own province, but we cannot consent to their passing from the witness-box to the judicial bench ; least of all can we consent to their occupying such a position where the subject-matter is one of which they have no special cognizance.' In such a case a dozen city merchants, with a trained lawyer to guide their deliberations, would make a better tribunal than the Royal Society could supply.

      The extreme point to which reason leads us is the recognition of an unknown God. What now concerns us is the inquiry whether He has revealed Himself to men. Have we a revelation? A discussion of this question on a priori lines would have many advantages. But, on the whole, the practical view of it is the best. And it would be mere pedantry to ignore the peculiar claims which Christianity has upon our notice. In fact, the question narrows itself at once to this plain issue, Is Christianity a Divine revelation? If this question be answered in the negative, it is really useless to discuss the merits of Islam; and as for Buddha, his popularity in certain quarters in England as a rival to Christ is proof only of the depth of Saxon silliness. There is a sense, of course, in which all enthusiasm is inspiration, but for our present purpose this is a mere fencing with words. The question is perfectly definite and clear to every one who wishes to understand it, Is Christianity a revelation from God? Let us examine the witnesses.

      If we ask in what form this alleged revelation comes to us, all Christians are agreed in placing in our hands a Book; in a word, they point us to the Bible. But here, at the very threshold, their unanimity ceases. While some would insist that this is the only revelation, the majority of Christendom would point us also to a certain class of men so supernaturally gifted and accredited that they are themselves a revelation. This system, which is popularly associated with Rome, deserves priority of consideration because of the prestige it enjoys by reason of the antiquity of its origin, and the influence and number of its disciples. Moreover, if its claims be accepted, the truth of Christianity is established; and if on examination they be rejected, the ground is cleared for the consideration of the main question on its merits.

      The founders of Christianity, we are told, in addition to their ability to work miracles such as the senses could take notice of, possessed also supernatural powers of a mystic kind. By certain mystic rites, for instance, they were able to work such a transformation in common bread and ordinary wine, that, although no available test could detect the change, the bread really became flesh, and the wine blood. Further still, we are assured that these powers have been transmitted from generation to generation, and are now possessed by the successors of the men who first received them direct from Heaven. And more than this, we are asked to believe that these miracles are actually performed in our own day, not in isolated and remote places far removed from observation, but in our midst and everywhere; and that, too, in the most public and open manner.

      If this be true, it is obvious that not only the miracles which are thus wrought in our presence, but the very men themselves who cause them, are a Divine revelation. We are no longer left to reach out toward the Supreme Being by the light of reason; we are thus brought face to face with God.

      Indifference is impossible in the presence of such demands on our faith. If these men in fact possess such powers, it is difficult to set a limit to the respect and veneration due to them. But if their pretensions be false, it is monstrous that they should be permitted to trade upon the credulity of mankind. Suppose we admit for the sake of argument that the apostles possessed these powers, the question remains, Are these same powers in fact possessed by the men who now claim to exercise them ?

      It is not easy to decide what amount of evidence ought to be deemed sufficient in such a case. But is there any evidence at all? These powers are not supposed to be conferred immediately from Heaven, but mediately through other men, who in turn had received them from their predecessors, and so on in an unbroken line extending back to the days of the Apostles. No man who is satisfied with the evidence upon which evolution rests can fairly dispute the proofs of an apostolic succession. Let us, therefore, go so far in our admissions as even to accept this also; and that, too, without stopping to investigate the lives of those through whom the "succession" flowed. Some of them were famous for their piety, others were infamous for their crimes. But passing all this by, let us get face to face with the living men who make these amazing demands upon our faith.

      Some of these men were our playmates in childhood, and our class-fellows and companions in school and college days. We recall their friendly rivalry in our studies and our sports, and their share in many a debauch that now we no longer speak of when we meet. Some of them are the firm and valued friends of our manhood. We respect them for their learning, and still more for their piety and their self-denying efforts for the good of their fellow-men. Others, again, have fallen from our acquaintance. Although, ex hypothesi, equally endowed with supernatural gifts which should make us value their presence at our deathbed, they are exceptionally addicted to natural vices which lead us to shun them in our lifetime.

      And this disposes of one ground on which possibly a prima facie case might be set up. If all those who are supposed to possess these extraordinary powers were distinguished from their fellow-men by high and noble qualities, their pretensions would at least deserve our respect. But we fail to find any special marks of character or conduct, which even the most partial judge could point to for such a purpose.

      On what other ground, then, can these claims be maintained? It is idle to beat about the bush. The fact is clear as light that there is not a shadow of evidence of any description whatsoever to support them. This being so, we must at once recall one of the admissions already made, lest these men should take refuge in an appeal to the New Testament as establishing their position. The enlightened Christianity of the Reformation emphatically denies that even the Apostles themselves possessed such powers, or that the Bible gives any countenance whatever to the assumption of them. In a word, Christians who are the very elite of Christendom maintain that such pretensions have no Scriptural foundation whatever.

      If Christianity be true, we need not hesitate to believe that certain men are divinely called and qualified as religious teachers. But this position is separated by an impassable gulf from the mystic pretensions of priestcraft. In truth, sacerdotalism presents extraordinary problems for the consideration of the thoughtful. If it prevailed only among the ignorant and degraded, it would deserve no attention. But the fact is beyond question that its champions and votaries include men of the highest intellectual eminence and moral worth. The integrity of such men is irreproachable. They are not accomplices in a wilful fraud upon their fellows; they are true and honest in their convictions. How, then, are we to account for the fact that many who hold such high rank as scholars and thinkers are thus the dupes of such a delusion? How is it to be explained that here in England, while we boast of increasing enlightenment, this delusion is regaining its hold upon the religious life of the nation? The national Church, which half a century ago was comparatively free from the evil, is now hopelessly leavened with it. The more this matter is studied the more inexplicable it seems, unless we are prepared to believe in the existence of spiritual influences of a sinister kind, by which in the religious sphere the minds even of men of intellect and culture are liable to be warped and blinded.'

      Footnote To discuss the legality of such views and practices in the Church of England would be foreign to my argument, and outside the scope of my book; and moreover, having regard to Articles XXVIII. and XXXI., I cannot see that the question is open. Here is one clause of Article XXVIII. "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substaace of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions." It may be interesting to notice here that this vetoes the superstitious meaning which almost universally attaches to the word "sacrament." It is the equivalent of the Greek word, which is used by the LXX in Daniel ii. 18, 19, 27, 28, 29, 30, 47, and iv. 9, and is always rendered secret in our English version. This moreover is its ordinary meaning in the New Testament. But the word was even then acquiring the meaning usually given to it in the Greek Fathers, viz., a symbol or secret sign. See, e.g., Rev. 1: 20, and xvii. 5, 7. And this is the significance of the English word "sacrament." It connotes something which represents something else; and so we find that in old writers Noah's rainbow, the brazen serpent, &c., are called "sacraments." And in this sense it is that the bread and wine in the "Eucharist" are a "sacrament" ; they represent the body and blood of Christ. Therefore to hold that they are in fact His body and blood is to "overthrow the nature of a sacrament."

      Our practice of kissing the book in taking a judicial oath is in this sense a "sacrament." And there can be no doubt that it was owing to some symbolic act of this kind that the Latin word sacramentum came to mean a soldier's oath.

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