Christianity - Rational Readjustments
THE unceasing growth of knowledge and the steady expansion of thought are resistless revisionary forces. At first thought it might seem incongruous that enlightened reason could ever be the agent of uncertainty and bewilderment to the Christian mind. But, as a matter of fact, reason has been the great intellectual and social disturber of the ages. Reason in order to secure for itself sure standing ground has always had to contend with aeonic unreason. Rational progress has been secured only at the cost of overcoming obstacles enshrined in both custom and tradition.
The evolutionist tells us that long before man was a reasonable being he was an emotional animal. For dateless ages he was far more governed by his appetites, his impulses, and emotions than by any law born of thought. As tribal relations developed there grew up certain usages which hardened into custom, the observance of which, in the common interests of the tribe, was made obligatory upon all. The acts so consecrated were, by general consensus, adjudged to be for the common good, and hence in effect were accorded the sacredness of law. Acts which, by the same general test, were counted injurious were put under taboo, were forbidden. It was thus that the savage man first acquired his sense of right and wrong. He did right when his conduct conformed to the serviceable custom of his tribe. He did wrong when he committed the act tabooed, the injurious act. Thus the first ethical sense of primitive man sprang from the recognition of social necessities.
Whether this theory is accepted or rejected matters little so far as real history is concerned. Nothing is historically clearer than that the knowledge of the most knowing has in large part been reached by slow processes, every step of which has encountered barriers erected by some ancient custom, prejudice, or superstition. Custom has been the despot of the ages. It is such today. Its power in society is well voiced in the familiar saying that "One might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion." At this writing the "hobble skirt" is in vogue. As a fashion it is really so ultra that many sensible women have entered a league of revolt against its decrees. But nevertheless it parades itself in great numbers and show upon the avenues. It is a fashion which cannot plead for itself a moral, even if it may an economic, defense. But it is one to which multitudes of women have succumbed, a majority of whom, five years ago, would have been "inexpressibly shocked" to see any one of their sisters on the streets in a costume like that in which they themselves now unhesitatingly appear. Imitation is a factor of marked influence in collective social life, and it is on this principle that particular styles, even in clothes, which ought to be impossible, come to assert the tyranny of custom.
But what is true in the minor matter of costumes is far more bindingly true in the realms of creed and tradition. The tendency of the great masses of men, the tendency of all men indeed, is just to perpetuate in their own lives beliefs and customs as transmitted to them by their fathers. There has been handed down, well-nigh intact, from antiquities, nobody knows how great, whole volumes of folklore containing all mixtures of absurdities, superstitions, myths, fables mixtures that might have been brewed in the cauldrons of Macbeth's witches. And there are many among us who familiarly quote these things as talismanic of the weather, of crops, of weddings, or of anything that might happen in domestic or social life. Let it be granted that many who indulge in this kind of pastime have little or no faith in the, validity of the things which they repeat. The significant thing is that the collective mind at any stage in its history could have invented and formulated so many mental nostrums, and the greater wonder is that these things should be perpetuated in the memory and thought-habit of succeeding generations.
The evolution of superstitious thought has been much studied. It is well known that in prescientific ages the unexplained phenomena of nature contributed in-definitely to inspire the human mind with a sense of awe and mystery. These were ages in which ghosts and witches abounded, when Satan in Protean forms insidiously stole into the haunts of men. The human imagination was at once stimulated and depressed by the combined sensations of hope and fear, of faith and perplexity. There was a weird sense of spiritual phenomena, not all benign, pervasive of environment. Many events were charged to supernatural causes. The more mysterious the event the more certain was it to be connected with some occult movement of Providence. Nature, to the primitive man, furnished ubiquitous provocation for the invention of superstitious beliefs.
The Christian religion in itself, measured in its own terms, is infinitely removed from a religion of superstition. But all through the centuries multitudes of its adherents have been largely imbued with superstition. These shared the common notions of their times. They inevitably mingled their superstitions with their religious faith. And so it has easily and certainly resulted that the Church itself has been a channel through which many false views of both nature and Providence have come down to our times. Buckle, for instance, in his History of Civilization, directs many of his most caustic paragraphs against the Church of Scotland the Church in the land of David Hume and Sir Walter Scott as being a very nursery of superstitious beliefs.
Nor should all this be to the modern mind either a source of wonder or of censure. Before the advent of science and the most fruitful science is hardly older than some men now living the phenomena of nature were interpreted by the imagination rather than by methods of ascertained law. The imagination made its appeal far more largely to mystery than to knowledge, and hence could not well be other than a fruitful mother of false notions and superstitious beliefs. Christianity, in its New Testament character, was, of course, never responsible for the burden of error thus carried in the popular mind. But Christianity could not escape the evil mixture of false views which its subjects so universally associated even with their religious beliefs.
Now, when it is remembered that conservatism is not only one of the most permanent but one of the most controlling forces governing human thought and conduct, it cannot be a subject of wonder that reason in its conflict for a rational interpretation of the world has en-countered vast obstacles from inherited and cherished errors and superstitions. Conservatism has ever been sovereign in the world of common thought. In the ecclesiastical world this rule has been so secure, has been so popularly approved, that he has always been the exceptional man whose voice was raised for a new departure. This man, if he is not too large of girth, or too persistent, may be borne with. He may be regarded as a freak, or a harmless fanatic. But if he be a Wesley, he will be mobbed in the street; if he be a Luther, the princes and councilors of empire will summon him to trial, and the Pope will issue a bull of excommunication against him. We may not forget that the rulers of the Jewish Church hunted Christ to his cross because they regarded him as a dangerous heretic.
If we survey the whole world of thought and action, if we review the entire history of progress, with this thought in view, we shall be more than ever impressed that only the exceptional man advances beyond the great routine. China, with its four hundred million population, until just now has stood for centuries a huge, unprogressive civilization. Why? Simply because from immemorial time every generation has repeated the thoughts, acts, and experiences of its predecessor. A certain stereotyped habit of life has stamped itself into the very fiber and customs of the people. Against it has been trained the heaviest gunnery of Western ideals, and yet at this very hour the outer walls of Chinese conservatism are only slightly breached here and there.
Yet among people who imagine themselves as in the van of modern progress there are whole colonies characterized by an unyielding and unmoving conservatism of much the same quality as that of the Chinese nation. How many of all we know are there who analyze great problems for themselves? How many are there who invent new implements of material progress? How many are there who make great scientific discoveries? How many are there who in the very vital realm of religious knowledge and experience are not moving in the same beaten pathways as their fathers before them? Or, how many are there who, if challenged, would be able to render clear and convincing reasons, for instance, for their views of the Bible, or for the entire assortment of convictions which they so religiously hold?
Many millions of communicants are included in the membership of the great Greek and Roman Churches. But it is the definite policy of these organizations to discourage among the laity independent investigation of religious questions. The Church, or, rather, the priestly oligarchy, claims so authoritatively to have defined all articles of faith as to make it unnecessary for the lay mind to vex itself with such matters. The very name "Protestantism" implies dissent, cleavage, from the long heredity of usage and belief as maintained in the older Catholicism. But it is far from the universal habit of Protestants to protest. The majorities accept their doctrines as they do their clothes, as ready-made articles. The overshadowing fact is that men viewed en masse are ancestral in their habits. We are what we are largely because of the homes in which we were born. Heredity has put its stamp upon us. Our deeper and controlling habits have been largely shaped by reactions from our early domestic and social environments. The philosophy of the most general beliefs is quite truthfully expressed in the lines wrought out by Henry Sidgwick in his sleep :
We think so because all others think so;
Now, all this, of course, is not to deny the sincerity nor to invalidate the Christian goodness of multitudes whose thinking, so far as it goes, is well-nigh purely traditional. But it all does emphasize the necessity, if there is to be real progress for mankind, of better mental processes. If there is to be a larger grasp on truth, if there is to be clearer intellectual apprehension of the world around us, if the life of men is to be enriched by great accessions of new knowledge, then, it is necessary for somebody at least to do some original thinking.
Traditional views are not to be condemned simply because they are traditional. There are two types of traditional thinking. The one covers all that class which has had a long tenure in human thought, but the assumptions of which do not prove truthful. Many old and cherished views have not been able to abide the tests of scientific examination. Once, to the common belief, the world was simply a round flat disc, a spread-out plane. This belief is no longer possible. The Ptolemaic astronomy once commanded assent from the most learned minds. But after a false sway of four-teen centuries this system received its deathblow at the hands of a Bohemian monk, an original thinker, a patient investigator, who not only clearly demonstrated its fundamental falsities, but displaced the system by a new astronomy.
False traditional views have placed many vicious interpretations upon the Bible. The science of literary and historical criticism has by no means been alone, or chiefly, responsible for enforced changes in biblical interpretation. It was once a belief universally and profoundly accepted in Christian thought that God literally in six days created the heavens and the earth with all that in them is. It was not the higher criticism, but geology, a first-hand study of nature's formative processes, that forced the abandonment of this view. It has been just as positively believed, on assumed biblical authority, that man has existed on the earth for only about six thousand years. Indubitable scientific discovery has also rendered this view untenable. Archaeology distinctly confirms the conclusion that elaborate civilizations existed upon the earth at a period far antedating six thousand years ago.
A dogmatic misconstruction of the Bible has been responsible for much disgraceful controversy with, and many humiliating theological defeats from, scientific authorities. Science, in the very nature of its quest, is often called upon to modify or to revise its working hypotheses, but it is always in pursuit of verified results, and when it reaches these it can suffer. no defeats. The champions of unscientific dogma by their noisy attacks upon, and their sullen retreats from, the assured demonstrations of science, have furnished one of the most humiliating chapters in the history of theological thought. Happily, to the credit of modem intellect, and for the advancement of a sane faith, the Bible is now more and more receiving an interpretation which does not put it in conflict with scientific truth.
A second type of traditional views is of the kind that expresses truth, after much truth, but not all the truth knowable of the subject involved has been ascertained. This type is fundamental. It furnishes conditions indispensable to progress in knowledge. At least it furnishes initial and essential stepping-stones in the direction of final truth. Perfected knowledge is the result of evolutionary processes. The perfected type of the Corliss engine is a marvel of ingenuity. But it is not the product of any one brain, nor of any one generation. It represents not only the fundamental principle adopted by James Watt in his original patent of 1769, but the finest coordinated results of all revisions and improvements in construction which have been contributed through nearly a hundred and fifty years of inventive work. This history may illustrate how old facts are fundamental to the most perfect present-day knowledge. The principle has equal application to many traditional views which have come to us from a remote past.
Nothing is to be said against traditional thought in itself considered. It may be as expressive of truth as any matter of scientific verification, or it may contain features of truth which condition indispensably further knowledge on a given subject of inquiry. The difficulty with many traditional minds is that the truth which they hold is with them a thing of arrested development. They are content with a fragment, a rudiment, in place of the fully developed product.
But this mental habit the habit, alas! of multitudes of good people in itself gives poor promise for the future. It is not the habit from which are begotten the pioneers of advanced movements in Church or in state. The mind that has dropped into a dogmatic and contented mood in the possession of things received only from the past is a mind with its vision closed to the future. It is as though the twentieth century, instead of looking forward for new intellectual and moral conquests, for new spiritual dominions, were called upon to be content with the standards, the ideals, and the partial knowledge of the eighteenth century. The creation of Watt's engine was a great achievement. It immortalized the name of its inventor. This original invention embodied principles of construction which all subsequent builders have had to observe. But if the mechanical world had settled down to the conclusion that Watt's engine was the ne plus ultra of construction, then the wizardry of that creative machinery, steam and electric-sped, which in our day has multiplied the productive power of human industry a thousandfold, would be to us unknown. The fact that to-day the seas are navigated by palatial fleets, that the lightning express leaps on its path of steel, and that the roar of mighty factories fills our cities, is all due to continuous inventive progress. Upon the original achievement there have been continuously superinduced new improvements, new adjustments, new combinations, new potentialities, until there has been evolved the majestic leviathan which to-day easily and without weariness does the work of a multitude of men.
I take it that this history is but a parable of unlimited and undeveloped potentialities which inhere in all the social, intellectual, and moral life of the race. An imperative need is that all departments of thought and motive shall come under the direction of rational rule. From immemorial time the emotional side of human nature has been at the front. All the mysteries of life itself and of outlying nature have been appropriated by and interpreted through the emotions. This has given room, and especially in connection with man's religious instincts, for innumerable vagaries of interpretation, for the rise of endless superstitions, for the ghost dances that have haunted the night, for magic, for bogies, and countless irrationalities which appeal to and overawe the credulous mind. The play of nature's mysteries upon the untrained emotions has always given the medicine man, the soothsayer, and the astrologer an awesome rank in primitive society. The older customs, philosophies, and creeds were largely infused with that speculative and uncertain quality which had its source in an emotional rather than a rational interpretation of the universe. The custom may have hardened into law, the philosophy accepted as an authority, the creed most positive in utterance, but they all alike asserted their sway over a prescientific habit of mind.
Truth would require the admission that in no realm has the irrational wrought sadder mischief than in that of religious thought. Religion has so much to do with unseen phenomena, with a supernatural world, its divinities are so out of sight, and their movements and purposes so hidden in mystery, as always to make it easy for the credulous and imaginative mind to associate with religious thought all sorts of elusive notions. The great superstitions of the world have nearly all of them been domesticated in religious thought. This statement does not apply to Christianity at its original sources. Christ, let it be reverently said, was the sanest of all religious teachers. It might be said that he was strictly scientific in his methods. In his teaching, parables, and illustrations he went direct to nature. He enforced his lessons by objects most familiar to the experience and observation of those whom he taught. But with the passage of time, the pure and simple faith of the gospel, like a river flowing down from its pure source, became much colored and corrupted by the superstitions and errors of the ages through which it passed. No truth, however perfect in itself, can be lifted higher than the highest ideals of its interpreters. The most perfect truth ever uttered will itself appear a distorted thing when handled only by men mentally and morally astigmatized.
The truth is that Christianity cannot have its fairest opportunity, can never realize its rightful supremacy, until it makes its advent into a rationally ordered society.
The most perfect age of science, when it shall come, will prove the age of most triumphant faith. Aside from the supreme mission of the gospel, the most vital and hopeful prophecy of the present is contained in the steady and sure progress of scientific thought. Science, in a very saving sense, is rationalizing the age. Its reign will be a reign of sanity. Science stands voucher for nothing but truth. It insists in its every process upon verification. In its own spirit it is never dogmatic about its hypotheses. If it cannot test its question by one hypothesis, that hypothesis is abandoned and another resorted to until the result sought is found. Science rests in no theories, no professions. It rests in nothing save the verified result. In its character simply as an exorciser science is a supreme benefaction to mankind. It is gradually but surely banishing from the human imagination ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, bogies, evil shades, demons, which have for so long haunted and frightened the spirit of ordinary mortals.
Science is a great clarifier of thought, a great revealer of knowledge. It refuses to allow myth to pass for anything but itself. It strips fable of every meaning except its own. It does not allow itself to be misled by tricks of speech or figures of rhetoric. It insists upon knowing the exact truth. It has the finest sense for detecting plagiarism and imposition. From the world of faith it is banishing superstitions and false traditions. Science makes no protest against the healthy artistic imagination, nor against its creations as seen on canvas or in statue. No more does it make protest against the legitimate life of faith and worship. But it does strip faith of all false appendages. It insists that religion divested of error and superstition shall go forth upon its mission clad only in its own intrinsic perfections, radiant in its own beauty.
Science is the great builder of modem civilization. It is the creator of the modern mercantile world. It has gridironed the continents with railroads, has peopled the seas with steamsped fleets, and has corraled the whole world into a close community of common intelligence and interests by lightning telegraphy. It has created the new industrial world, transferred the burden of industry from the strain of human muscle to machinery, thereby multiplying the products of consumption a thousandfold. It has created and systematized the agencies of intelligence for every department of human knowledge. The spade of the archaeologist has uncovered the remains of most ancient civilizations, and has so unearthed the data of their customs, laws, literatures, and religions as to enable the modem scholar to know more of their history than did their very contemporaries of the far-off ages. We may not know more specifically of Athens than did Pericles, but of the ancient world as a whole we have a vastly more perfect knowledge than was ever possible to him. Science makes us contemporaneous with all ages. And what is true of the ancient world is immeasurably more true of our knowledge as applied to the civilizations of to-day. There is no nation so remote or obscure as not to be visualized to common knowledge. Much is known of the dwellers of uttermost islands, of the dwarfs in African wildernesses, and of the most isolated tribes in the northernmost wilds of America. The great civilizations of the Orient are no longer remote from the nations of the West. The ends of the earth are bound together in the closest interests of mutual commerce. The great universities of America hold endowed chairs of the Asiatic languages and literatures. The philosophies and cults of the East, as set forth by native masters, are luminously translated into the Western languages. The field of universal religion is exhaustively studied. The science of comparative religion has yielded a vast wealth of information concerning God's dealings with mankind, has greatly revised many earlier notions of Christian people relating to the heathen world, and has done much to prepare the way of the Christian teacher for successful work among pagan peoples. The history, the philosophies, the ethnologies of all races are now accessible to the student.
The scientific knowledge of nature is a modem achievement. The telescope has carried the vision of the observer into the infinities and has annihilated the boundaries of the physical universe. Microscopy reveals to our knowledge a cosmos peopled with infinite families of minute and marvelous life both unknown and undreamed of in the prescientific times. The processes of aeonic world-building have been traced, and are translated by our cosmic and geological sciences. Representative fauna and flora of all strata and ages, so far as accessible, are on exhibition in our museums of natural history. The animal life of land and sea has been captured, studied, classified.
In these later days man himself, physiologically, psychologically, in everything covering the entire range of his being, has become the subject of most intensive study. The natural development of childhood, the proper pedagogy of child-training, the processes of adult minds, normal and abnormal indeed, everything included in the range of man's mental history all is reduced to a rational philosophy. There is no longer left in human nature even a playground for the witches. Man in all his diversified life sees himself reflected as never before in the mirror of his own science.
In times comparatively recent, much has been said and written with reference to an assumed antagonism between science and religion. This assumption, happily, is losing place in clear thought. Science proceeds on the basis of verified fact. Religion, it is assumed, is largely a matter of faith. But fundamentally, as between the verified bases of science and the effective faith of religion, there is not the real difference which many have imagined. Even the verifications of religion are experimental. Religious faith tests itself by the acceptance of hypotheses. In Christian life the knowledge, the experience of the truth comes from the doing of the revealed duty. The experience of the saints keeps the Christian faith alive. Christ living, and constantly witnessing himself, in the hearts of his people, is the one superlative fact which makes Christianity a growing and irresistible power in the earth. Of course, aside from truth confirmed by experience, there are important doctrines of Christianity which appeal to faith in a way not admitting of present experimental verification. But such doctrines all stand in rational harmony with the verified truths of faith, and so may be reasonably accepted. It is, however, true that the faith which we call Christian would itself perish had it no corroborations in the living experiences of believers.
Science also shows its faith by its obedience. In order to possess itself of the truth it submits itself with all carefulness to the test of hypothesis. And, if one hypothesis fails, it perseveringly resorts to another and to another test until the truth sought is not only discovered, but demonstrated. And so it may be said, though obviously from different bases, that both religion and science are subjects of faith, and both are experimental. The quest of science can be conducted only by the requisition of many qualities which in themselves are essential to the Christian life. "Science requires patience, diligence, accuracy, honesty, self-control, self-forgetfulness, willingness to take risks and to endure.'
In service rendered science is proving itself more and more a beneficent ally of Christianity. If to bring to the world the kingdom of Christ is the mission of Christianity a kingdom of brotherhood, of righteousness, of mutual service and helpfulness, of sanity, of truth and enlightenment among men then science may be justly rated as one of the most effective agencies of such a consummation.
Among the distinctive services of science none are worthy of greater emphasis than the part it has played in promoting the spirit of mental honesty among men. Science, while insisting that no mystery is too sacred for its investigation, no obscurity too formidable for its undertaking, has absolutely no tolerance for any motive or method employed in conscious deviation from the truth. Doubtless many, known as scientists, have on occasion and in the name of science, appeared as special pleaders. But by so much they have been unscientific. The supreme quest of science is truth itself. But truth responds only to truthful processes.
The general trend of scientific service is totally in the direction of the world's betterment. For the farmer it analyzes his soils, indicates their required fertilizers, and enables him to multiply their productiveness. To the stock-raiser it furnishes the eugenics for breeding the choicest types of horses and cattle. It floods the darkness of the city with electric lighting, sends pure water for domestic uses into every dwelling, and by methods conserving the general health discharges the city's sewage to the seas. As heretofore indicated, it has manifolded the productiveness of labor by the creation of machinery. In the street car and the auto-mobile it has provided available and expeditious methods of local transportation for all classes. It gives promise of early solving the problem of aerial navigation. In-deed, in the entire realm of instrumental utilities there seems hardly a conceivable need which has not met with response from scientific skill.
There is no department in which the beneficent and healing mission of science is more manifest than in that of surgery and medicine. It enables the surgeon to perform miracles of physical relief and cure. It has driven the scourge of yellow fever from cities like Havana and New Orleans, and has banished typhoid from the armies. The Panama Canal belt, a region of natural pestilence and peril to life, it has transformed into one of the most sanitary of habitable zones. It has hunted the germs of contagious and fatal diseases, discovered their antitoxins, and confidently predicts the day as not far distant when these great infections may be no longer feared.
Science, in all fields of its work, is serving human interests, widening knowledge, extending its sway over natural forces, and establishing for man in all relations a rational view of life. Its forces are active in all fields that attract human interest. In Africa, in the Orient, or wherever, on earth or sea, there are unique objects of study, there some intrepid scientist, with gun and camera, or whatever outfit required, is doing his work. Experts will continue to push their investigations into all fields and into every department until nature has surrendered her last revealable secret, and the knowledge thus gained will be more and more the common wealth and the common sanity of mankind.
Scientific knowledge will be regulative of the future. Philosophy, enriched and aided by this knowledge, while broad enough to embrace all the practical phases of thought and life, will be rational and sane in its processes and conclusions. Theology, no longer a system of cheerless logical architecture erected on a basis of arbitrary assumptions about God, but feeding itself vitally on the Divine Fatherhood as revealed in Jesus Christ, will come to such coordination with the best teachings of life and experience as to make most convincing appeal to enlightened reason. The Bible itself, under the critical illumination of a constructive scientific spirit, can no longer be manipulated or monopolistically interpreted in the interests of any special theology or ecclesiasticism. A reverent scientific criticism will yield to the entire world all that is possible to be known from a literary, historical, or chronological standpoint about the Bible. Biblical literature will be redeemed in popular thought from all traditions which have made of it a mere wonder-literature, a fetish to be worshiped, or which have loaded it with theories of inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility which it was never meant to carry, and which it has never claimed for itself.
The world is moving into an ever-enlarging enlightenment. Before the increasing light, error and superstition, all things akin to astrology, necromancy, soothsaying, sorcery, and relic-worship, will pass to the limbo of a credulous and superseded age. It matters not how strongly intrenched in past usages, how seemingly impregnable the organism in which they dwell, systems and beliefs that are radically out of harmony with the world's growing enlightenment must finally disappear.
From what has been said it might possibly be hastily concluded by some that man's religion is destined to be swallowed up in mere scientific thought. Infinitely untrue. Religiousness is the greatest fact of man's being. With Sabatier, it must be said, "He is incurably religious." The fact and importance of man's spiritual nature will ever loom more largely upon the world's thought. It would be a poor comment on God's great masterpiece, man to assume that that which in him is most Godlike, his spirituality, should deteriorate in proportion as his mind is illumined with knowledge. Tennyson was not less a poet because he had a sane appreciation of the largest science of his time. The assumption that man's spiritual nature must shine less perfectly because his mind is enriched with rational knowledge would be preposterous. The more valuable our religion the more certain is it to be rational. God is not a juggler. He who is the Father of our spiritual nature is also the Creator of the mental and physical laws which are so fundamental to our very being.
( Originally Published 1914 )
The Church - The Church Urban And Rural
The Church And The Poor
Christianity - Rational Readjustments
Christianity - Educated Leadership
Christianity's Leavening Life
Read More Articles About: Christianity And The New Age