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A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 6: Mr. A.J. Balfour's Scheme

By Robert Anderson


      "WE are without any rational ground for believing in science"; "We are without any rational ground for determining the logical relation which ought to subsist between science and religion." Such are among the startling theses maintained by the author of A Defence of Philosophic Doubt. And one of the main results of his argument is stated thus: " In the absence, then, of reason to the contrary, I am content to regard the two great creeds by which we attempt to regulate our lives as resting in the main upon separate bases." A protest this against "the existence of a whole class of ' apologists' the end of whose labours appears to be to explain, or to explain away, every appearance of contradiction between the two."

      But here Mr. Balfour fails of his usual precision. A definition of religion is wanting. He seems sometimes to use the word in its first and widest sense, and at other times as equivalent to a particular system of belief, and, by implication, to Christianity. A consciousness of our own existence is the foundation of all knowledge. And that elementary fact is the first stepping-stone toward an apprehension of the existence of God. It might be fairly argued that our knowledge of the existence of God rests upon a surer basis than our knowledge of the external world, and therefore that religion in that sense takes precedence of science. But such a plea is unnecessary, because our knowledge of the external world is, for the practical purposes of life, absolute and unquestioned, We may be content, therefore, to assert that the two creeds stand upon a perfect equality.'

      And, speaking generally, belief in both is universal. There are exceptions, doubtless - as, for example, "street arabs and advanced thinkers"; but this does not affect the argument. Science depends on our belief in the external world; religion on our belief in God. " Religious feeling springs from the felt relation in which we stand to a supreme Power; and, as Tyndall justly says, "religious feeling is as much a verity as any other part of human consciousness, and against it, on its subjective side, the waves of science beat in vain."

      But this relates to what is called natural religion, and it is not until we pass into the sphere of revealed religion that the seeming conflict with science arises. The difficulties of practical men, moreover, are of a wholly different order from those which perplex the philosophers. Take, for example, the argument against miracles. An intelligent schoolboy can see that the solution of the problem depends on the answer we make to the question whether there be a God. Even John Stuart Mill admits this. To acknowledge the existence of a God possessed of power infinitely greater than that of man, and yet to insist that He must necessarily be a cipher in the world- this may pass for philosophy, but a different sort of word would describe it better.

      And as with the so-called " laws" of science, so also is it with its theories. Excepting only the evolution hypothesis, which enjoys a certain amount of popularity, common men care nothing for them. What weighs with earnest thinkers who are real truth-lovers is that ascertained facts appear to disprove the truth of what has been received as a Divine revelation.

      But treatises such as those of which A Defence of Philosophic Doubt is a most striking example, are further defective in that they defend religion upon a ground which leaves the apologist equally free to fall back upon superstition, as to vindicate the claims of the Bible to be a revelation. And as a result of this, in discussing the foundations of belief they ignore the doctrine of transcendental faith, which is characteristic of Christianity.

      The theological argument from miracles has, at least in its common form, no scientific or Biblical sanction. The fact of a miracle is a proof merely of the presence of some power greater than man's. That such a power is necessarily Divine is an inference which reason refuses to accept, and Christianity very emphatically denies. ( I have dealt with this subject in discussing Paley's argument in The Silence of God. Scripture is explicit that miracles have been, and may be, the result of demoniacal or Satanic agency. The Jews accounted thus for the miracles of Christ, and His answer was an appeal to the moral character of His works.)

      Every one who believes in a God must be prepared to admit that there may be creatures in the universe far superior to man in intelligence and power; and even an atheistic evolutionist would as freely admit this, if he were honest and fearless in his philosophy. It is entirely a question of evidence.

      But this we need not discuss. As regards the theologian the matter stands thus. He tells us that evil beings exist, endowed with powers adequate to the accomplishment of miracles on earth, and at the same time he maintains that the fact of a miracle is a proof of Divine intervention. But in the New Testament the miracles are never appealed to as an "evidence," save in connection with the preceding revelation to which they are referred. They accredited the Nazarene as being the promised Messiah. And "the fact is allowed," not, as Bishop Butler avers," that Christianity was professed to be received into the world upon the belief of miracles," but that the claimant to Messiahship was rejected as a profane deceiver by the very people in whose midst the miracles were wrought.

      And it is a further fact that no one of the writers of the New Testament accounts thus for his own faith, or for the faith of his converts. That their faith was an inference from their observation of miracles - that it was due to natural causes at all - is negatived in the plainest terms, and its supernatural origin and character are explicitly asserted. So long as the testimony was to the Jew, miracles abounded; but if the Apostle Paul's ministry at Corinth and Thessalonica may be accepted as typical of his work among Gentiles, his Epistles to the Corinthians and Thessalonians emphatically disprove the idea that miracles were made the basis of his preaching.

      A single quotation from each will suffice. The Jews require a sign" (he says; that is, they claimed that the preaching should be accredited by miracles), and the Greeks seek after wisdom" (that is, they posed as rationalists and philosophers) : "but " (he declares, in contrast with both) "we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the Power of God, and the Wisdom of God." And to the Thessalonians he writes, "When ye received the Word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth the Word of God."

      Now, no one who will examine these statements fairly can fail to recognise their force and meaning. They do not indicate a belief resulting from the examination of miracles performed by the Apostles, but a faith of an altogether different character. We need no protest against the folly and dishonesty of adapting the teaching of Christ and His apostles to modern views, and calling the name of Christian over the hybrid system thus formed. Such a system may be admirable, but it is not Christianity. For the Christian is supposed to have a faith which is produced and sustained by his being brought into immediate relations with God. No one, of course, will deny that the God whose creatures we are can so speak to us that His Word shall carry with it the conviction that it is Divine. And if it be demanded why it is that all do not accept it, the Christian will answer that man's spiritual depravity renders a special intervention of the Divine Spirit necessary.

      No one, again, will deny that formerly this part of the Christian system was generally accepted by professed Christians. But it has been given up, of course, by all who have ceased to regard the Bible as a Divine revelation. Naturally so, for the one part of the system depends on the other. None but the superstitious suppose that God speaks to us save through the Scriptures, and once we give up the old belief of Christendom, that the Scriptures are what they claim to be, the Christian theory of faith becomes untenable.

      Christianity stands or falls according to the conclusion we arrive at here. Hence the special difficulty which embarrasses the consideration of the question. In litigation, a case can never come before a jury until some definite propositions are ascertained, which the one side maintains and the other side denies. But in this controversy "the issues" are never settled. The lines of attack and defence never meet. The assailant ignores the strength of the Christian position; and the Christian, entrenched in that position, is wholly unreached by the objections and difficulties of the assailant.

      A Defence of Philosophic Doubt - to revert to that treatise again for a moment - is an attempt to arbitrate between the two without joining hands with either. Its author is liable to be challenged thus: "If your treatise be intended as a defence of natural religion, it is unnecessary; for there is clearly no conflict between science and natural religion. But if it be a defence of revealed religion, that is, of Christianity, it is inadequate; for you must fall back upon the Bible, and if you do so we will undermine your whole position by proving that essential parts of it are inconsistent with" -" the doctrines of science," the scientist is sure to say, thus destroying his entire argument, and leaving himself helplessly at the mercy of Mr. Balfour's pitiless logic. But if he were not misled through mistaking his hobby for a real horse, he would say, "in-consistent with ascertained facts"; and this position, if proved, would refute Christianity.

      For example: the miraculous destruction of the cities of the plain is one of the seemingly incredible things in Scripture. The scientist rejects the narrative as being opposed to science, just as, on the same ground, the African rejected the statement that water became so solid that men could walk upon it. But if the scientist could fix the site of Sodom and Gomorrah, and point to the condition of the soil as proof that no such phenomenon as is detailed in Genesis could have occurred there, the fact would be fatal not only to the authority of the Pentateuch, but to the Messianic claims of the Nazarene, who identified himself with it. But the scientist can do nothing of the kind. On the contrary, the admitted facts confirm the truth of the Mosaic narrative, and those who regard that narrative as a legend would urge that an ignorant and superstitious age sought thus to account for the extraordinary phenomena of the Dead Sea and the district surrounding it.

      The narrative of the Jewish captivity in Babylon, again, was formerly a favourite battle-ground in this way; and in view of the deciphered cuneiform inscriptions, and other discoveries of recent years, it is an interesting question whether the Christians or the sceptics displayed the greatest unwisdom in the controversy. The fight at this moment wages chiefly round the Mosaic account of the creation. And here it must be admitted that while in theological circles no one need hesitate to declare his doubts upon this subject, a man must indeed have the courage of his opinions to own himself a believer in Moses when among the Professors. Intolerance of this kind savours of persecution, and persecution generally secures a temporary success. It is only the few who ever set themselves to make headway against the prevailing current. If the shout, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" be kept up "by the space of two hours," even staid municipal officials will yield to it; and a two hours' seance of the Professors will silence the doubts of ordinary folk as to the infallible wisdom of science.

      Upon any one in whom polemical instincts are strong, the effect is wholly different, and in all seriousness it may be averred that if Moses had written as a heathen philosopher, his cosmogony would now be held up to the admiration of mankind, and his name would be venerated in all the learned societies of the world. But his writings claim to be a Divine revelation: hence the contempt which they excite in the minds of the baser sort of men, who regard everything which savours of religion as a fraud, and the impatience shown, even by "men of light and leading," toward any one who wishes to keep an open mind upon the subject.

      The Mosaic cosmogony has been called "the proem to Genesis." But more than this, it is an integral part of the proem to the Bible as a whole. And having regard to the importance of the subject, and to the interest which it excites, a chapter shall be devoted to the consideration of it.

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