You're here: oChristian.com » Articles Home » Robert Anderson » A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 8: An Agnostic's Apology

A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 8: An Agnostic's Apology

By Robert Anderson


      "THE natural attitude of a thinking mind toward the supernatural is that of scepticism." Scepticism, not agnosticism. The sceptic halts at the cross-roads to take his bearings; but at sight of a cross-road the agnostic gives up his journey altogether. True scepticism connotes intellectual caution, but agnosticism is intellectual suicide.

      Not so, it will be said, for agnosticism merely betokens the prudence that refuses to proceed if no plain signpost marks the way. But in this life it is not by plain signposts that we have to direct our steps. The meaning of a word moreover must be settled by use, and not by etymology; and this word was coined to express something quite different from scepticism. It is the watchword of a special school. And no one will dispute that the late Sir Leslie Stephen may be accepted as an authoritative exponent of the teaching of that school. Let us then turn to his treatise entitled An Agnostic's Apology.

      A book about dress would not offend us by ridiculing and denouncing our conventional clothing as uncomfortable, unhealthy, and inartistic. But if the writer went on to urge that we should discard all covering, and go about in our native nakedness, his lucubrations would only excite amusement or disgust. And no one who sympathises with the main argument of the preceding chapters would find much fault with Leslie Stephen's treatise if it were merely an exposure of the superstitions and errors and follies that have corrupted "the Christian religion" and discredited theological controversy. But when he goes on to preach agnosticism as a positive "faith," and to formulate it as an ideal "creed," he stands upon the same level as the preacher of nakedness.

      His Apology opens with a definition of agnosticism. "That there are limits to the sphere of human intelligence," no one of course denies. But the agnostic further asserts "that, those limits are such as to exclude at least what Lewes called 'metempirical' knowledge," and "that theology lies within this forbidden sphere." And the meaning of this is emphasised by his statement of the alternative position-a position which he rejects with scorn-" that our reason can in some sense transcend the narrow limits of experience."

      Now there is a grotesquely transparent fallacy in this; and I will illustrate it by a grotesquely childish parable. As regards what is happening next door at this moment my condition is that of bland agnosticism. My reason can tell me nothing, and happily the partition wall is thick enough to prevent my senses from enlightening me. But if my neighbour comes in to see me, my ignorance may be at once dispelled, and my reason "transcends the narrow limits of my experience." And so here. Everybody admits that in the spiritual sphere reason can tell us nothing. Therefore, our author insists, we are of necessity agnostics.

      Not so, the Christian replies, for God has given us a revelation. The agnostic's rejoinder will be to reject my implied definition of "experience," and to deny the possibility of a revelation. And if he were an atheist his denial would be reasonable and consistent. But Leslie Stephen's repudiation of atheism undermines his whole position. To acknowledge the existence of a God whose creatures we are, and at the same time to deny on a priori grounds that He can reveal Himself to men - this savours of neither logic nor philosophy.

      If some one came to my house purporting to be the bearer of a letter from my brother, the fact of my having no brother would be a sufficient reason for refusing to receive him. But if I had a brother I should be bound to admit the visitor and read the letter. My having a brother would not prove the genuineness of the letter, but it would make it incumbent on me to examine it. And while the fact that there is a God does not establish the truth of Christianity, it creates an obligation to investigate its truth. But the agnostic shuts the door against all inquiry. His agnosticism is positive and dogmatic. It is based on a deliberate refusal to consider the matter at all.

      This being so his Apology is merely a paean in praise of ignorance, and a sustained appeal to prejudice. And he makes free use of the well-known nisi prius trick of diverting attention from the real issue by heaping ridicule upon his opponents. His dialectical juggling about the freewill controversy is a notable instance of this. For as he does not pretend to deny that will is free, his fireworks, effective though they be, all end in smoke. A like remark applies to his discussion about virtue and vice. And his reference to Cardinal Newman is a still more flagrant example of his method. For if Newman is responsible for the statement that "the Catholic Church affords the only refuge from the alternatives of atheism or agnosticism," it merely exemplifies the fact that very great men say very foolish things. In view of the faith of the Jew, and the facts of Judaism, such a dictum is quite as silly as it is false.

      But even if, for the sake of argument, we should admit everything by which this apostle of agnosticism attempts to establish his opening theses, the great problem which he ignores would remain, like some giant tree round which a brushwood fire has spent itself. For the real question at issue is not whether, as he seems to think, theologians are fools, nor even whether Christianity is true, but whether a Divine revelation is possible. And by his refusal on a priori grounds to accord to Christianity a hearing, he puts himself out of court altogether. His position is not that of enlightened and honest scepticism; it is the blind and stupid infidelity of Hume. It is the expression, not of an intelligent doubt whether "God hath spoken unto us by his Son," but of an unintelligent denial that God could speak to men in any way. It is a deliberate and systematic refusal to know anything beyond what unaided reason and the senses can discover. His agnosticism is - to adopt his own description of it - a "creed" ; and were we to emulate his method, it might be contemptuously designated a creed of mathematics and mud.

      As a philippic against Christianity, An Agnostic's Apology is all the more effective because its profanities, like its fallacies, are skilfully veiled. And yet the tone of it is deplorable. In England at least, cultured infidels are used to speak of Christianity with respect, remembering that it is the faith of the apostles and the martyrs - the faith, moreover, professed today by the great majority of men who hold the highest rank in the aristocracy of learning. But a very different spirit marks this treatise. In the writer's estimation the great doctrines of that faith are but "old husks," and the profession of them is only "bluster." And he challenges the Christian to " point to some Christian truth, however trifling," that "will stand the test of discussion and verification."

      That challenge the Christian can accept without misgiving or reserve. And the doctrine on which he will stake the issue is not a "trifling" one, but the great foundation truth of the Resurrection.

      In writing to the Christians of Corinth, the Apostle restates the Gospel which had won them from Paganism. And the burden of it is the Saviour's death and resurrection. "That Christ died for our sins" is a truth which, in the nature of things, admits of no appeal to human testimony. But though the Resurrection is equally the subject of positive revelation, the Apostle goes on to enumerate witnesses of it, whose evidence would be accepted as valid by any fair tribunal in the world. Once and again all the Apostles saw their Lord alive on earth after His crucifixion. And on one occasion He was seen by a company of more than five hundred disciples, most of whom were still living when the Apostle wrote.

      The Rationalists suggest that belief in the Resurrection was the growth of time, "when a haze of sentiment and mysticism had gathered around the traditions of Calvary." But this figment is exploded by the simple fact that the interval was measured by days and not by years. The disciples, moreover, were quite as sceptical as even these "superior persons" would themselves have been. One of the eleven Apostles, indeed, refused to believe the united testimony of his brethren, and for a whole week adhered to the theory that they had seen a ghost. But the Lord's appearances were not like fleeting visions of an "astral body" in a darkened room. He met the disciples just as He had been used to do in the past. He walked with them on the public ways. He sat down to eat with them. And more than all this, He resumed His ministry among them, renewing in detail His teaching about Holy Scripture, and confirming their faith by a fuller and clearer exegesis than they had till then been able to receive.

      Such was their explicit testimony. And in view of it the Rationalist gloss is utterly absurd. It is sheer nonsense to talk of a haze of sentiment, or of Oriental superstition, or of over-strained nerves. If the Resurrection was not a reality, the Apostles, one and all, were guilty of a base conspiracy of fraud and falsehood. Credulous fools they certainly were not, but profane impostors and champion liars - no terms of reprobation and contempt would be too strong to heap on them. And this is what unbelief implies, for in no other way can their testimony to the Resurrection be evaded.

      And in addition to this direct evidence, there is abundant evidence of another kind. At the betrayal all the disciples were scattered and went into hiding. But at Pentecost these same men came forward boldly, and preached to the Jews assembled in Jerusalem for the festival. And Peter, who had not only forsaken Him, but repeatedly denied with oaths that he ever knew Him, was foremost in denouncing the denial of Him by the nation. Something must have happened to account for a transformation so extraordinary. And what was it? Only one answer is possible -The Resurrection.

      But further. While the three years' ministry of Christ and His Apostles produced only about a hundred and twenty disciples in the city of Jerusalem, this Pentecostal testimony brought in three thousand converts. Nor was this the mere flash of a transient success. Soon afterwards the company of the disciples was more than trebled. For we read "the number of the men came to be about five thousand," and we may assume that the women converts were at least as numerous. A little later again, we are told, they were further joined by "multitudes both of men and women." And later still, the narrative records, "the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." All this, moreover, occurred at a time when the opposition of the Sanhedrim and the priests was fiercer and more organised even than before the crucifixion. How then can it be explained? Only one answer is possible - The Resurrection.

      But even this is not all. We have other indirect evidence, still more striking and conclusive. To suppose that the Christianity of the Pentecostal Church was "a new religion" is an ignorant blunder. The disciples preached to none but Jews; all the converts without exception were Jews ; and by the religious leaders of .the nation they were regarded as an heretical Jewish sect. When the Apostle Paul was put on his defence before Felix, the charge against him was not apostasy but heresy. He was a "leader of the sect of the Nazarenes." And what was his answer to that charge? "According to the Way (which they call a sect) so worship I the God of our fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets. His position, he thus maintained in the most explicit terms, was that of the orthodox Jew.

      Now there was no ordinance to which the Jews adhered more rigidly than that of the Sabbath. How was it then that with one consent they began to observe the first day of the week? The sceptic may hint at parallels for their success in proselytising, but here is a fact that cannot be thus dismissed. Something of an extraordinary kind must have happened to account for it. What was it then? Only one answer is possible- The Resurrection.

      I am not ignorant of the methods by which infidelity has sought to account for the empty tomb. The lie of the Jewish priests - that the disciples stole the body - is too gross for modern rationalism; and as an alternative explanation, we are told that Christ had not really died! And Dr. Harnack, the greatest of living rationalists, disposes of the matter by treating the Resurrection as a mere "belief." " It is not our business," he says, "to defend either the view which was taken of the death, or the idea that He had risen again." And he adds: "Whatever may have happened at the grave and in the matter of the appearances, one thing is certain: this grave was the birthplace of the indestructible belief that death is vanquished, that there is a life eternal." And again: "The conviction that obtained in the apostolic age that the Lord had really appeared after His death on the cross may be regarded as a coefficient." It is not that the fact of the appearances was "a coefficient," but merely the belief that there were appearances. For his meaning is made clear by his going on to refer to the "coefficient" of a mistaken expectation of Christ's return. There are no facts of any kind in this scheme, but merely "beliefs" and "views" and "ideas." And this being so it involves the absolute rejection of the Gospel narrative, and therefore it destroys the only ground on which discussion is possible.

      Here then is our answer to the agnostic's challenge. There are circumstances in which it is idle to speak of spiritual truth; but the resurrection of Christ is a public fact accredited by evidence which will "stand the test of discussion and verification." And when the agnostic denies that Christianity can supply an answer to as much as one of "the hideous doubts that oppress us," the Christian points to that Resurrection as dispelling the most grievous of all the doubts that darken life on earth. For the resurrection of Christ is the earnest and pledge of the resurrection of His people. Such then is the Christian's hope. "A sure and certain hope" he rightly calls it; nor will he be deterred by the agnostic's denunciation of the words as "a cutting piece of satire."

      Notwithstanding petulant disavowals of atheism, the real issue here involved is not the fact of a revelation, but the existence of God- a real God, not "the primordial germ," nor even the Director-General of evolutionary processes, but "the living and true God" From all who acknowledge such a God we are entitled to demand an answer to the Apostle's challenge when he stood before Agrippa: "Why should it be thought incredible with you that God should raise the dead? " And this suggests a closing word. Leslie Stephen avers with truth that the "enormous majority of the race has been plunged in superstitions of various kinds." But the philosophers always omit to tell us how this universal craving for a religion can be accounted for. And while they are vainly seeking for the solution of the enigma in the monkey house of the Zoological Gardens, sane and sensible folk who make no pretensions to be philosophers will continue to find it in the Genesis story of the Creation and Fall.

      (Footnote - No one surely will suppose that the foregoing is a full statement of the evidence for the Resurrection. To compress such a statement into such a compass would be a feat unparalleled in Apologetics. But even this partial and most inadequate statement is amply sufficient as an answer to Leslie Stephen's challenge. What has here been urged in proof of the Resurrection is proof that it was neither a delusion nor a fraud. For the moral and spiritual elements involved are more signifi-cant even than the physiological. I might further appeal to the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the visible proofs of which are vouched for by the men who ex-perienced it. And I might appeal to the Ascension and, in connection with it, to the Transfiguration, which, I may remark, the Apostle Peter records as matter of evidence (2 Peter i. 15-19).)

Back to Robert Anderson index.

Loading

Like This Page?


© 1999-2016, oChristian.com. All rights reserved.