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A Roomier Universe

Our English winter compensates for its gloom and rigours by offering us now and then a night of extraordinary splendour. The solitary country wayfarer has, on these occasions, his gaze irresistibly drawn by the solemn magnificence of the spectacle above. He is tempted to forget earth while he has speech„ with the constellations. The starry hosts, "that great and awful city of God," gleaming with a lustre rare in these latitudes, send their mighty message straight to the heart. From the beginning men have pondered that message. The earliest theologies have been astronomical. The European and classical names for God go back to the old Sanscrit word for the sunrise. Stonehenge is a temple of the sun, and our leading ecclesiastical festivals of to-day are baptized survivals of customs, existing in the dawn of history, which had their origin in observed movements of the heavens.

Today our theology is again being touched from the stars. The telescope has proved a veritable instrument of revelation, and what it has revealed stirs our inward life to its centre. Since it began to sweep the heavens man has had to domesticate himself in a new universe. In his earlier thinking creation was a comparatively snug affair. The earth was its centre and man its raison d'ętre. Our planet was the fixed point round which everything revolved. The sun was created to give man light by day, the moon and stars to shine on him by night. At a handy distance above him was a paradise for the good, and beneath, within equally easy reach, an avernus for the wicked. The astronomer has overturned this theology for us. The scene he discloses is one in which our earth is found to be the insignificant satellite of a sun nearly a million times bigger, but which in its turn is only a speck in the surrounding immensity. He talks to us of fifty million stars as visible with the telescope, each one a mighty sun, the centre probably of planetary systems full, for aught we know, of conscious life. He describes the distances of these worlds by the centuries of years which it takes light, flying at its rate of inconceivable swiftness, to cross the gulf between themselves and us ; or, what is not less bewildering, by showing us that a star viewed by us in January, and then again in June, when we are one hundred and eighty million miles from our earlier standpoint, has not altered its apparent position by a hair's-breadth. We are indeed the denizens of a roomier universe !

But the point for us here is in the effect which this immense widening of the human outlook has had, and is likely to have, upon man's religious conceptions, and his accompanying spiritual life. The first result has been undoubtedly one of profound disquiet. It is hardly worth while to blame the Church for her treatment of Galileo. She was acting here strictly in accord with average human nature, which dislikes nothing more than to be turned from its old familiar thought-habitations into a fresh one to which it is not yet accustomed. Man is bound to the old mental home by a thousand ties, and suspects that he will catch his death of cold in the new. Our religious teachers are a long way yet from having got accustomed to the roomier universe. Hazlitt's gibe that "in the days of Jacob there was a ladder between heaven and earth, but now the heavens have gone farther off and are be-come astronomical," suggests a problem that still puzzles sorely many an honest pulpiteer. A well-known popular preacher, in a sermon on heaven, laid it down as a leading proposition that heaven was a place above us, and cited passages of Scripture to prove that the departure of the glorified was always an ascent. In this argument it seemed to have been forgotten that an "ascent" from London and an "ascent " from Melbourne would take the " ascenders" in exactly opposite directions. " Above " and "beneath," so far as space and locality are concerned, have been emptied of their meaning by astronomy, and it is time that religious teachers of all persuasions took account of so elementary a fact. What is the exact significance for the inner life of this feature of the astronomical revelation we may inquire presently.

Meanwhile it is worth observing that the mental confusion, and one may say distress, which the breaking down of the older conceptions has caused, is by no means confined to the ecclesiastical world or to mediocre minds. It has been felt in an acute degree by thinkers of the first order. The cry of Pascal, "The eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me," is echoed by our own Watson :

But oftentimes he feels
The intolerable vastness bow him down,
The awful homeless spaces scare his soul.

Carlyle, too, was dominated by this feeling when a friend whom he had accompanied to the door of his house at Chelsea, and who had pointed to the brilliant starlit heavens as " a glorious sight," got from him the reply, "Man, it's just dreadful ! " It is evident that even the highest human thinking has not yet become fully acclimatised to immensity.

And yet the signs are multiplying that we are at the dawn of a new and better conception. Man is already feeling his way about in this larger habitation, and we may predict that by-and-by his inner life will be not only entirely at home in it, but gloriously free and exultant. As a proof of this let us note here one or two of the elements which the new conditions are causing to emerge in our spiritual consciousness.

It is infinitely reassuring, to begin with, to realise that to the uttermost verge of these vast spaces we find not only everywhere the presence of Mind, but of the same Mind. The laws of light and heat and gravitation which obtain in London obtain in the Pleiades. The same King's writ evidently runs throughout the whole Empire. The old Roman's pride and sense of being at home when, in farthest Britain or by the remote Euxine, he saw the flash of Rome's eagles and heard the tramp of her legions, is, in a finer way, reproduced in loyal souls, who today find the Power they adore exercising a sway which, at no furthest remove in this stupendous whole, is contravened. If the universe, through all its suns and systems, knows but one Master of the House, who is already known to us, there is enough here surely to thaw out all the chill of strangeness and to make the cosmic spaces to their utter-most reach friendly and homelike.

But this is only the beginning. There is immense spiritual inspiration in this other message of the telescope, that life altogether is larger than our fathers imagined. For the Mea grows upon us that if the material realm of which we form a part is so much vaster than we deemed, so in like manner must be that spiritual realm to which we also belong. That our poets and philosophers should sing and write as though creation's greatness spells man's littleness is, when one thinks of it, the oddest perversion. It supposes that we are dwarfed by the immensity of the whole, whereas it is this very vastness, properly considered, that enhances the worth of our own life. For we are not only in the universe, but the universe is in us. It plays through us, finding in the soul the organ of its consciousness. The greater the whole, the mightier the throb of its pulsation through us who are its parts.

More than that. The greater the universe, the greater its Maker. The dimension of the one helps us to conceive the proportions of the other. But in a great nature it is ever the moral quality that counts most. If God in these later ages has astonished us by the revelations of His material side, what surprises may He not have in store on the side that is spiritual ? If His power is expressed in the worlds that populate the Milky Way, what is the love that is proportioned to such a Power, and what may we not expect from it ?

But the most important message of the stars is yet to be stated, aid must be put into a line. It is that of the absolute spirituality of true religion. The widening of the outer heavens is the cosmic emphasis upon the word of Jesus : " Neither shall ye say, Lo here ! or lo there ! for, behold, the Kingdom of God is within you." Astronomy puts the veto on external pilgrimiigs, as aids to religion. We might journey from here to Arcturus and be no whit nearer God. The movement needed is of another kind, in another sphere. Religion's "above " and " beneath " have nothing to do with location. They are states of the heart. To get on here we need not to change our place but our ways. We reach heaven not through the clouds but through our own souls. It comes into us, and we come into it, in pro-portion to the stages we make in faith, in love, in humility of spirit. As we move along this line of things what we are chiefly conscious of is not so much the roomier realm of the stars, majestic though that be, as the roomier realm of the soul. How the two are exactly related does not yet appear. Enough if we realise that the inconceivable vastness of the one stands over against the inconceivable vastness of the other.

Citizens of a boundless physical universe, let us rejoice most in our fellowship in that spiritual kingdom whose treasures an inspired voice has thus described : "Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, the things

( Originally Published 1903 )

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