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The Religion Of A Scientific Man

Is science the friend or the foe of religion? It depends a great deal on the science. It depends much on the religion. It depends most of all on the man who is trying to make a place in his life for the postulates of science and the sanctions of a religious experience.

That particular scientific views have made religion impossible to some men cannot be denied. That particular religious views have caused some men to refuse to give a candid and open hearing to modern science is equally true. That we live in a period when there is no end of confusion and heart-searching and brain-searching, when the way of faith is often difficult and the way of doubt is often easy, is patent to every thoughtful man. It is also fairly clear that the religious obscurantists add to the difficulty and practical perplexity. It is certain that some types of scientific dogmatists throw dust in the air just when we most need to see clearly. And the mystics who ignore the whole problem, as they go off with their beatific visions, sometimes succeed in saving the beatific visions by a method which makes it impossible for them to help those who feel most the perplexity of the problem. Perhaps we can best analyze the situation and come to see some of the light which is ready to fall on the dark places by following the history of a hypothetical man who goes through the typical experiences as regards science and religion which the life and thought of our time are likely to bring about. It may be that no one man has ever passed through all these stages according to schedule, but many men have passed through some one of the typical experiences we shall discuss, and the whole situation will stand out best if we follow an imaginary man through the whole circuit of attitudes which are outstandingly characteristic of our time.


The boyhood memories of many a scientific man bring up a time of simple and beautiful and undisturbed faith. Mr. Alfred Noyes, in that sharply penetrating poem "The Old Sceptic," describes the coming back of such memories as these :

I will go back to my home and look at the wayside flowers,

And hear from the wayside cabins the sweet old hymns again,

Where Christ holds out his arms in the quiet evening hours,

And the light of the chapel porches broods on the peaceful lane.

And there I shall hear men praying the deep old foolish prayers,

And there I shall see once more the fond old faith confessed,

And the strange old light on their faces who hear as a blind man hears Come unto me, ye weary, and I will give you rest.

I will go back and believe in the deep old foolish tales,

And pray the sweet old prayers that I learned at my mother's knee,

Where the Sabbath tolls its peace throughout the breathless mountain-vales,

And the sunset's evening hymn hallows the listening sea.

There are many homes yet to be found in the world where the sense of God and Christ is as sharp and clear as the sense of the father and mother, and a great series of homes like that which Burns describes with such simple eloquence in "The Cotter's Saturday Night" are to be found in widely scattered lands; and such homes form the golden chain which binds the world about the feet of God. The boy reared in a home like this breathes in piety as he breathes the air. He does not reach after belief as an attainment. He has it as a part of the very structure of his life. The Bible speaks to him with the high and awful authenticity of the voice of God even as it speaks with the winsome tenderness of the Man of Galilee. Prayer is a radiant reality which has been interpreted to him by the shining of his mother's face and the glow of deep communion which he has seen in his father's eyes. The life of the home is all shot through and transformed by the practical power of religion. It is a life as well as a creed, an experience as well as a belief. Mind and heart and will together are seeking to work out the divine behests. The church has a tender and beautiful sanctity, and worship has an alluring summons. The home interprets the church and the church inspires the home. All is simple and clear and nobly beautiful. The sunset glory and the verdure-clad hills and the power of Christ are all experienced and undisputed facts of life. The early years spent in such a home will give color to all the after time of a man's experience. He may journey far into paths of questioning and doubt, and may even come to dwell in places of positive unbelief, but he can never quite get away from the fact that he has known religion from within. The noblest skepticism of the nineteenth century was characterized by this regretful and pensive memory of the joys and hopes lost to the life for evermore.


Forth from such a home as this the youth of eager and alert mind and buoyant heart goes to find his place in the intellectual life of the world. Often his home has been a sheltered spot, undisturbed by the mighty tempests beating out their fury upon the sea. The faith of his father and mother has been as simple and na´ve as his own. They have never felt the tug and the strain of the age's questioning. In their quiet cove, protected by mountains of strong be-lief, they have never felt the danger of the tempests raging upon the unresting sea. The son goes forth to be a sailor. He leaves the sheltered spot of his boyhood. He feels the wind upon his brow. His ship must meet the tempest. The old mountains are far away. He meets the first crisis of his life. To drop the figure, the keen-brained candid youth comes face to face with the positions of modern science. He learns to know the names and the work of the great scientific leaders of the nineteenth century, who gave out a new universe and a new set of formulas for life. He is introduced to a new appraisal of the facts of the world. He becomes familiar with the reign of law. The new thoughts appeal to his mind and fire his imagination. The vast universe to which scientific investigation introduces him, all held in the steel-like clasp of a great system of law, is a mental spectacle of solemn grandeur. There is an almost religious thrill in the thought of the far-lying worlds all subject to the control of inflexible and immutable law. If he looks through a telescope he sees more law-mastered worlds. If he looks through a microscope, and begins to investigate the infinitely small, here again is a universe in miniature held in the same inescapable grasp of law. Accompanying this study of the reign of law comes the knowledge of those vast generalizations which science has uttered in the attempt to explain the universe. Some form of the nebular hypothesis dazzles his imagination and compels his mental assent as an account of how the worlds came to be. In the cosmos he sees the far-lying grandeur of a great process of evolution. Coming to the earth itself, geology and biology speak out right confidently of an age-long process by means of which the world came to be what it is and the present forms of life developed from forms infinitely more simple. From movements in an inchoate universe of diffused substance which evolved into planets, on to the full completeness of civilized man, there is an unbroken process of evolution, the expression of a completely mastering system of law. The more he knows of various sciences, the more does this view become all-embracing. He is in a vast system with no place for breaks or gaps. The reign of law is the first and last word. And the process law is working out may be described by one magic word evolution.

As time goes on it becomes increasingly evident that this self-working system is not the friend of religion. The reign of law takes the place of the reign of God. Piety is still very beautiful, but it has no foundation in the system of things. The old boy-hood faith has all of its early charm, but it has ceased to command mental allegiance. At first the young man with his growing mind struggles against such conclusions. He repudiates their very suggestions. There must be some way to reconcile the reign of law and the reign of God. He tries to believe that at great crises in the life of the universe God stepped in and did something; but more and more he finds the gaps are filling up. The system is like some monster which devours everything in sight. The day comes when the student faces the fact that his scientific view of the universe is a complete thing with no breaks at all. He realizes bitterly the significance of the words of the brilliant skeptic who desired to take God to the edge of the universe and bow him out, with thanks for past services, be-cause he was no longer needed.

While all this has been going on, and the young man has been coming into fuller and fuller knowledge of a system of law without any breaks anywhere, from another angle his faith has been weakened. He has become acquainted with the results of modern critical biblical scholarship. He had been brought up to believe in an inerrant Bible. He beholds it lying in fragments at his feet. He becomes interested in the processes of critical analysis of biblical documents and the frank appraisal of all their problems, and soon finds the conclusions of such investigations compelling his allegiance. The Bible and the religion of which it is the literary exponent, become a part of a system of perfectly natural evolution. He has lost God out of the world of nature. He has lost him out of the Bible. The universe has become a vast mechanism with no room for God anywhere. All this produces heart-ache enough. The world has become very lonely since the Infinite Companion is dead. The system of law whose mighty majesty so attracted the imagination at first has lost its almost religious appeal. It has made the world less lovely, it has brought an autumn sense of loss in the place of the springtime of the soul. Mechanics have taken the place of personality in the universe, and the far-sighted thinker has as his most dominant emotion a sense of loss. But every step has been taken candidly, and there is no retreat. Faith has become impossible, but intellectual candor is still on the throne.

Of course many men do not go the whole length we have described. They build them-selves half-way houses in various spots; but they find it increasingly hard to live in the half-way house; and when they are professors in universities they usually find that their most brilliant students refuse to stop at all at the half-way house, and insist on pressing on to the logical conclusion. God is still worshiped in the half-way house, but if one takes the whole journey, the Deity is lost before the destination is reached.


As time passes, however, a dim gray comes to be seen in the darkness. It turns out, after all, that the final conclusion was not the last word. As Alice found it possible to go through the looking-glass, so the student finds that there is something beyond that materialistic interpretation of the universe which makes it merely a water-tight system of inflexible laws. The new start comes with the recognition that all the facts have not been faced. If there is anything a scientific thinker makes a matter of pride, it is his candid appraisal of all the facts to be found anywhere. What hospitality is to the sheik in the desert open-minded welcome of new facts is to the scientist. So it is with a certain revulsion of feeling that he discovers the existence of a whole range of facts which he has been ignoring. The moral experience of humanity is as much a series of facts as are the defining characteristics of any form of life. A religious experience is as much a fact as a stone or a bug or a chemical reaction. Knowledge and its classification are as stubbornly a part of experience as any formation which confronts the eye of the geologist, and the interpretation in which the mind can rest must squarely meet and appraise and make room for all the facts of experience. Having set in some such fashion as this to rise no more, it seemed, the sun of religion comes within view again, having risen, it may be, to set no more. Men of science come to feel that they must investigate the phenomena of the religious life. With the same curious interest with which they might scrutinize an unusual insect they turn their eyes upon religion. In such a spirit has been done the type of work represented by the late Professor William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. The earth is ransacked for data. Questionnaires are sent out which lead to more or less critical introspection. The secrets of the soul are put under the microscope and a brave attempt is made to unravel the mystery of the power of religion. All this represents one great gain. It offers to our young man, lost in the mazes of despairing knowledge, an opportunity to go back to a survey of the precious things which he has lost. It recognizes a series of facts which had been left out of account. It does not sneer at religion. It attempts to under-stand it. It does not deride conversion. It attempts to explain it.

When the religious world sees the scientific world turning a respectful gaze upon religion there is much rejoicing. In some quarters there is an inclination to issue a thanksgiving proclamation. It is felt that at least a prayer meeting might be held to celebrate the event. That a great scientist should devote long periods of time to collecting and classifying the data of religious experience suggests the speedy arrival of the millennium. Before the issuing of the thanksgiving proclamation, however, it will be well for us to do a little close thinking. The facts of the case may not be altogether as encouraging as we had supposed. If a man gives their full significance to all the facts of religion, there is, indeed, a new start and a hope of a brighter day. But very often it happens that the scientific study of religion is merely an attempt to get all the religious phenomena so classified and interpreted as to fit into the old water-tight system. It often happens that the sun has not risen after all, and that the light which played in the sky did not indicate any dependable or permanent illumination. The scientific psychology of religion may easily turn out to be a psychology for the explaining away of the very central sanctions of religion. As long as the worship of the water-tight system remains, there is really no hope. As long as the thinker must be loyal to the machine at whatever cost, there is no real gain. To admit that religious experiences have a place in a perfectly mechanical and impersonal interpretation of life is not to help on the cause of religion. It is to make religion impossible to those who accept the interpretation. To admit that belief in a certain series of events and persons and ideas has had a transforming effect on human lives does not aid in producing future transformations if in the same breath those events and persons and ideas are discounted and declared without genuine authenticity. The psychology of religion is often an attempt to keep religion without theology, which is very much like an attempt to keep circulation without any veins or arteries. So when our student takes up the study of religion in a scientific way he has found an opportunity, but he is by no means sure of making his escape. He has a wonderful system of pigeonholes, and he will be tempted to insist on getting the facts into the system. He may all too easily forget that it is his business to enlarge the system so that it may fit the facts. The really hopeful thing about this sort of investigation is that the facts simply will not answer to any mechanical formula. If a man once genuinely faces the world of moral and religious experience, his world of mechanical thinking will begin to feel earthquake tremors. The very contact with the deeply personal experiences and transformations is like a series of electric shocks. A man may go on for a time engrossed in a dignified translation of personal experiences into interpersonal formulas, but it is always possible that the abject futility of this sort of performance will dawn upon him. When that day comes there will be a sunrise indeed. Our sincere and eager student may reach the Great Divide in this fashion. He has spent some time in gathering data as regards religious experience. He has them classified in a clever mechanical fashion. Then he is brought to a sudden stop by this fact : The one thing which made religion transforming was a belief in a personal, supernatural God. The personal trust in the Divine was the point of strategy in the religious experience. Now he has explained the mechanics of that experience. He can produce every factor except the personal trust in the Divine. But without that trust a repetition of the experience would be impossible. He has, therefore, explained religious experience by leaving out its one defining characteristic, and he has explained it in such a way as to make its repetition forever impossible to those who accept the explanation. The most important fact has slipped through his fingers and escaped. Now he is at the place of critical opportunity. Somehow he must find a larger synthesis. Somehow he must make a place for the Divine. How shall he do this without a break-up of his system? Can it be that the mechanical system is only a part of a larger whole? Can it be that this larger whole makes room for the very things he has so easily discarded? May God and freedom and personality have a place in the larger synthesis to which the candid thinker is driven?


At this point our candid thinker is likely to meet one real difficulty. All his intellectual life has consisted of flights by means of the use of one wing. The other has no power because it has never been used. Our age worships the inductive method of reasoning, and it is probably reserved for a later age to bring to its full service the too lightly sacrificed powers of deductive reasoning. So our pilgrim for the truth will probably use enlarged and modified induction in the perilous way to which he has now come. Everything hangs on his ability to see the meaning of one distinction. He has studied many a science ; he has accepted far-reaching scientific generalizations ; now he must see that science is only a record of the way in which things happen. It never tells why they happen. Because day follows night no one supposes that one causes the other. The great philosophical fallacy of science is the supposition that, because one thing follows another, the thing which follows must be caused by the thing which goes before. Science is a catalogue of the uniformities of nature. It has never told anybody why they are uniform. It does not know. In a moving picture the earlier films are not the ancestors of the later films. In a musical composition the earlier notes do not cause the later notes. In each case the cause is outside what appears in the series itself. Science is like a careful record of notes with no reference to the player. It is like a careful classification of the separate films with no reference to the cinematograph. Things happen in certain ways ; science records the ways ; but as to the great question of why they happen science has no answer to give. If our pilgrim after truth is able to see this fact, he is about to receive light which is light indeed.

A question may be asked about this vast system. Is it self-running, or does it have a great personal ground back of itself? To answer this question our scientist must plunge into philosophy. He must become a student of epistemology. He must enter the world of metaphysics. As he journeys on, light increases. His great discovery will be that he has been using the instruments of the mind without ever critically inspecting them. He has never seen what is involved in his own rationality. The moment he begins to scrutinize the necessary implications of rationality he finds personal intention and freedom and the discarded distinctions of his youth knocking at the door again. As he goes on he discovers that a self-running mechanism as an explanation of the universe is one mass of contradictions. It would contradict every fundamental postulate of that process of knowing by which it is worked out. It would deny personality and freedom and would make knowledge impossible. If there were such a universe as the mechanical system involves, we could never know it. On the other hand, a universe in which the free activity of a knowing mind is the fundamental fact makes room for everything in that process of uniformities which science has made known to us, but explains them all by a Cause which expresses itself in these uniformities, and not by making these uniformities self-sustaining.

If our thinker continues faithfully to pursue the paths of critical thought, he will come to see that science has its splendidly significant and important field in observing and classifying the uniformities of experience, but that it must leave their explanation to philosophy, and philosophy must call in a free and knowing person, the Master of Life. The new light focuses at one point. Law has been considered as something objective, something real, but it is seen that by itself a law is only a figure of speech. As has been wittily said, "A law cannot arrest any one it takes a policeman." From the standpoint of that description of the way things happen, which is science, a law is simply a formula of uniformity. From the standpoint of philosophy, which asks the ultimate questions, law is the name of the way in which God acts. The laws of nature are nothing but the abstract expression of the coherent and orderly method of the action of God. When all this is seen it is clear to our thinker that his system requires God, and that the last attitude of science, like that of religion, is one of faith. The only assurance for the continuity of life's uniformities is to be found in the character of God. But once allow divine personality to be the ultimate fact, and there is room for all those facts of moral experience which belong to ethics and those facts of history and revelation and the inner life and trust which belong to religion. The larger synthesis explains the physical uniformities and leaves room for personal freedom and all the transforming personal experiences.

Now the student does not try to make his psychology of religion fit into mechanical molds. He knows that morals and religion belong to that aspect of experience which transcends the physical uniformities of life. When our thinker has set the bounds between science and philosophy, and has followed a critical philosophy to its ulitimate conclusions, he finds a foundation for all the faith of his childhood as well as for all he has learned in scientific study.


Our pilgrim for truth has now found an intellectual destination. He sees that the task of the thinker is to find a view which will give to all a resting place of experience, and that mechanical views fail because experience is not mechanical. He sees that you must begin all adequate thought with a thinker, because that is where experience begins. You cannot begin with things. You can find a place for them only as a part of the experience of living thinkers. He sees that in his days of doubt he had allowed the smaller part of life to devour the larger. He had used rationality to prove that the world had no place for rationality. Now he begins with an ultimate person as the necessary postulate of experience. He finds a place for all the mechanical uniformities of life as an expression of an orderly mind and a steadfast will, but he knows that God is greater than his system, and if there were sufficient motive God could change any of the uniformities. He is not a citizen in a world whose laws master him. He is king in a world whose laws are just his ways of acting. So in the crisis of moral history there is a place for the miracle. When God does a thing in a different way you have a miracle. When he does it in his usual way you have the so-called order of nature. Really, it is all divine activity, both the uniformity and that place of crisis, like the resurrection of Jesus, when the uniformity of method is ignored because of a great ethical and spiritual need. With the personal view of the universe, whose orderliness is as steady as the character of God, but which does not have a dead and mechanical rigidity, there is room for freedom for man, for morals, for the tragedy of sin, for religion, for a real revelation from God to men, for the incarnation of the Son of God, for the mighty deed of suffering rescue wrought by the Son of God on Calvary, for the resurrection, for the new life, for immortality, and for a world view which includes all the uniformities of science and all the facts of faith. Such a view is in complete accord with the justified conclusions of modern biblical scholarship. It avoids those extreme conclusions which are the result of rationalistic presuppositions in the thinkers, but it candidly accepts those positions as regards date and authorship and unfolding revelation which have commended themselves to the sober and reverent scholarship of the world. It cannot rest content without a divine Christ. It must be sure of an actual redemption and a divine forgiveness, but it is very comfortable with a composite Hexateuch, and is ready to shake hands with a second Isaiah.

Thus our pilgrim for truth has found a Gibraltar at last. He remains a man of science, but he no longer confuses science with philosophy. He knows that the ultimate synthesis is a matter of philosophic appraisal, where the hidden communion of the saint and the formations of the geologist alike are treated with candor. He knows that God is the final postulate of the uniformities of science as well as of the raptures of the mystic. He knows that science, ethics, and religion have a common platform in the personal interpretation of experience. He knows that ultimate forces are figures of speech and an ultimate Person a reality. The Lord God Almighty is the explanation of the uniformities of nature and the trans-formations of religion.

( Originally Published 1915 )

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The Religion Of A Scientific Man

The New Orthodoxy

Bushnell And 'the Vicarious Sacrifice'

Robert William Dale, His Theology, And His Theory Of The Atonement

The Theology Of Ritschl

The Eschatology Of The Book Of Revelation

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