Then and Now
Joseph Henry Allen
The Berry Street Lecture, 1876

 

read before the ministerial conference
Arlington Street vestry
May 31, 1876

 

What we call rest, in living things, is like the dead-point of an engine, a moment of balance, broken in a moment by the same play of the machine that brought it on. What we call motion is the effort which the living creature makes to adjust itself to changes that come about not by its choice or will, changes within, from the law of its structure; changes without, which it must meet or else perish.

 

It is so with the simplest vital motions; it is so, too, with those movements of thought which affect the deepest springs of character, belief, or hope, and which we call religious. But here, the effort to meet the inevitable change is more than a vital instinct: it is often a struggle to keep one's hold on a faith which he feels slipping from his grasp; which, if he let it go, takes with it very largely the best comfort andblessing of his life. And, where there is one who is able to guide, or even to understand, the changes that come to pass in that general movement of thought which we all share in, there are, perhaps, a hundred thoughtful enough to watch it with interest, but not strong enough to meet it with the reaction of their own spirit; for whom it will come at length to seem the mere sweep of fate; and their own mind, in contemplating it, to be the plaything of destiny.

 

What we call liberal theology aims to keep in harmony with the general tone of the more advanced thinking (so-called) of the time, that which expresses itself, not especially in theology, but in literature and science as well. Liberal Christianity aims to follow this larger movement as best it may, without cutting adrift from the tradition and the devout sentiment of that Christendom in which it had its earlier nurture. That a line of cleavage between these two, barely perceptible ten years ago, has been widening to an abrupt and deep gulf of separation, may be our present misfortune, as it may be for our future better understanding and our strength. The exploring or the bridging of it makes no part of my present task.

 

Each of us watches the sweep of that movement from his special point of view; and each of us is apt to be warped in his judgment of it by something peculiar to his point of view. In many respects, the point of view from which I have been obliged to watch it is not that which I myself should have chosen. In some respects (let me confess) itresembles too much the helpless and saddened position which I spoke of at starting, of one who sees it without taking active part in it. In particular, I greatly fear to be drawn too far from the line of those emotions and sympathies in common, which make the compensating blessing of activeprofessional life; and which make the movement we are considering a profound religious experience to a man, instead of being — what Strauss finds it — the mere scientific study of a phase in the philosophy of evolution.

 

I have no self-glorifications to express, and no self-criti­cisms to suggest, which past years have seen so much of, and no set of theoretical opinions about anything, that I should at all venture to offer to the common stock. But anyman's testimony is worth something, if he will only try to say, simply and frankly, just how what he has seen has struck his eye. This is all that I, at least, shall attempt to do.

 

It will help me — and you too, perhaps —in approaching the subject as to which I desire conference with you, if I date from one of those nearer moments of rest and equilib­rium, which appear from time to time in the history of relig­ious thought. In doing it, I naturally enough turn to the time of my own childhood or earlier manhood, and try to recall what was the nature of that starting-place, from which we looked forward to the work of Christianity, as it then seemed to lie before us. The point which I wish to fix inmemory lies, therefore, somewhere between thirty-five and fifty years ago. Although the seeming balance of forces so active and vital must needs be delusive, and though what seems a fixed point in the perspective may be due to the haze of distance, yet I think I can hardly deceive myself inbelieving that the time I have roughly indicated was—in our little nook of Christendom—such a time of rest to our souls. The controversial work of Unitarianism was all over, and it had got, or seemed to have got, a good working faith. The shocking and appalling excrescences of the old theology it had removed once for all, for us, by a criticism not very searching or profound, perhaps, but at least quite sufficient for its task. Things painful and incredible in the biblical record it had either explained away in good faith, or unsus­pectingly ignored. The critical movement had gone just so far that our theory of Christianity was thus absolutely di­vested of everything that shocked the conscience or commonsense; while its hold on habitual reverence, and faith in its special sanction and authority, were absolutely unimpaired. The immense advantage to peace of mind and strength of character was retained, which consists in clinging to a visible symbol, honestly believed to be divine; while any suspicion of weakness in its intellectual foundation was left for future finding out. For the present, there was the tranquil and grateful sense of intellectual rest.

 

The general theory of Christianity as accepted at this stage — what is sometimes called "old-school Unitarianism” was, as we have heard President Walker describe it, especially adapted to the mind, shaped, as it were, to the de­mand, not of speculative theologians, but of serious and edu­cated laymen. Such representative names as those of Judge White, Judge Story, and Judge Shaw at once occur, when we recall that period. These men clung to Christianity with the tenacious hold of an honest reverence and a strong conviction; with a trained masculine understanding, also, which tolerated no affront to reason or good morals. Paley and Lardner had established the historical foundations; the structure to be built on them was that of rational piety, per­sonal morality, and civic virtue. That was the manly, dig­nified, and sober type of "Boston Unitarianism,” —a name never to be named without gratitude and honor. Lawyer-like, too, it was impatient, perhaps intolerant, of any ques­tioning of the foundations. The Bible, those men held, was a minister's credentials. Make what abatement in the popu­lar notion of it you honestly may and must: then take it, or else leave it, for what it claims to be, a revelation of abso­lute authority to declare the law of life, or to instruct the mind on the highest conceivable truth. To their strong and sober sense, Christianity, without a supernatural revelation of truth, without miracles, without the divine authority of Jesus, was a weak delusion, if not a wicked and hypocritical pretence. The subtleties of theologians, the refinements ofcriticism, were not for their style of mind. Christianity was holy and venerable to them, because it meant that virtue which regulates the life and saves the State. In the wordswhich I copy from the clear, firm autograph of President Quincy the accurate and perfect expression of this mental temper,—

 

Human happiness has no perfect security but freedom; freedom none but virtue;
virtue none but knowledge; and neither freedom, virtue, nor knowledge has any
vigor, or immortal hope, except in the principles of the Christian faith, and in the            
sanctions of the Christian religion.

I wish to express, with all the emphasis of which I am capable, my veneration and gratitude for these noble men, and for the type of rational, manly, and tender piety which they have left us. There are two sorts of people who do them and it a great injustice: those in other sects or at a distance, who fancy something in it cold, haughty, and exclusive; and the liberals of a younger day, who think with a certain lofty disdain of its strict and austere conserv­atism. But to those of my own generation, the life that was in its veins gave the very mother's milk on which we were nurtured; and it is impossible for us to think of it without a certain filial tenderness. Nay, such is the force of reverent habit, I am apt to think that Christianity, in all its ages of evolution, and in all its numberless forms, has never taken a type at once so free of ecclesiastical pressure, and in itself somanly, sweet, and noble. A faith which expressed itself in the ideal thought of Channing, the consolations and hymns of Greenwood, the tender wisdom of Ephraim Peabody; a personal piety whose profession and aim were the "formation of the Christian character”; a charity which created the Fraternity of Churches, and has made itself felt for fifty years in the tone and pattern of every good work done in this community,— these may very well challenge comparison withanything its critics have to show; and may very well make those of us who think we have outgrown it pause to consider whether, for a generation or two at any rate, we are likely to find anything so good to take its place.

 

But the moment of intellectual rest is only a moment; then comes the next inevitable step of intellectual advance. It is not our fault if what was so fair and good for our fathers has relaxed its hold on us, and has lost its hold for our children. I shall not pretend to do what has been done several times so well already, to trace the series of those inevitable steps. But it may be observed here, that the conservative instinct, which knows and dreads the impending change, is in its own way far more clearly prophetic than that brave spirit, loyal to ideas, which goes blindfold, as it were, in the paths of Providence. The forebodings of both coward and patriot were far outdone by the terrors of the Wilderness and the horrors of Andersonville. For those who scouted the forebodings, and scoffed the utterers of them, it is the chief honor now to have bravely faced the terror when it came. Happily, they could not know that their sanguine hope must be proved at so sore a cost. So with the warn­ings of orthodox foes or timid friends in our theological domain; so with the sanguine hope that hailed the first ray of broadening light. We were warned that we stood on the perilous edge; that a single step would take us beyond the recognized boundary of Christian faith. There were two directions in which that step might be taken. The transcen­dental freethinker was sure that his new philosophy gave him a better ground of Christian faith; the liberal critic would only relieve Christianity of a burden and an encum­brance that still hindered its free course to victory. So both disdained the warning; both overstepped the limit which he had himself acknowledged as the boundary of Christianity and unbelief; and, in a certain way, both have entered on a larger heritage.

 

One point, at least, they may fairly claim to have estab­lished in what I suppose is now the general consent among us,— that one may distinctly rule out from his belief everything that is technically supernatural; yet it is free to him, if he will, to profess himself a Christian, and claim the fellow­ship of his birthright church. In fact, many of us are rather disturbed if he prefers a different name. However precious to the believer may be those objects of his own affection and faith, they are, at this day, absolutely valueless to take Matthew Arnold's testimony for it — as the ground of argu­ment addressed to educated men.

 

Of course, this frank surrender of the ground on which we all supposed ourselves to stand thirty-five years ago was not brought about without many a grave warning, and many a sad misgiving. But I am not discussing reasons; only recalling the significant facts. The first shock to the received liberal theology of the day, I should be inclined to say, was Professor Noyes's argument on the Messianic interpretation of the prophecies; and the next was Professor Norton's rejection, on grounds part speculative and part critical, of the first two chapters of Matthew. That is, these decisive first steps were taken by deliberate, conscientious, conserva­tive scholars,— the best and soberest scholars we had to show. All the rest, we may say, followed as matter of course. But I well remember the mental distress felt by my beloved and honored relative, Henry Ware, Jr., at Mr. Emerson's gorgeous address before the Divinity School; and the pain with which he listened to his daughter's reading of that tender, reverent, and thoughtful exposition of Dr. Furness, touching the apparition of angels at the open sepulcher. These are waymarks and memories of the time when a new departure was set unmistakably before the faithful and grieved eyes of the good men who still abode in the former ways. As to the course that has been taken since, I am sure that I speak in the name of a good many who have followed it as far as anybody, when I say, that it has been with no iconoclastic zeal, and with no sense of triumph over a decaying superstition, but with deep reluctance and regret, and. a great sense of personal loss, that they have felt the ancient supports give way which had sustained so much integrity of life and vital piety; and have found themselves, as it were, in the case of pioneers, with a weary track to cross before they could look again for so well-sheltered and fair a home.

 

But this is only a single thing, and by the way. It is part of our training and mental habit, indeed, to look at these things from a theologian's point of view, and, perhaps, to ascribe too much importance to that view in comparison with other things. At least, in considering the changes of human opinion which make this generation different from the last, there are two other points which seem to be of equal, nay, of far deeper, moment and importance, as regards the footing and work of religion in the world. These are the views of man and of nature that appear to be prevailing no w, in contrast with those held by most of us a generation or two ago.

 

The first touches Christianity on its moral side: it has to do with human nature, character, and society; with what­ever makes for the establishing of the divine kingdom on earth. The old creed, Catholic and Calvinist alike, had its root in a sort of despair of human nature and earthly des­tiny; in strong contrast to the New Testament, it remanded to a future paradise and hell the solution of a riddle which it seemed impossible to solve in this world. The great reac­tion against that creed began, I suppose, with the deism and philosophism of the eighteenth century. It is just a hundred years since the new gospel of humanity, the modern creed of liberty and equal rights, was put in distinct expres­sion, to justify a declaration of national independence, to inspire enthusiasm in a doubtful struggle, and assert the principles of a new political life. In France it is still ap­pealed to as "the idea of eighty-nine”; that is, it defines the principles of the Revolution, as against the old constitution of State and Church. This new gospel of humanity—the code of human rights — became a sort of religion in its way, and the object of as passionate devotion as any relig­ious dogma of the past. Theophilanthropy (as they called it then), under the banner of "that good democrat, Jesus,” or of the new revolutionary "Supreme,” was an attempt to enlist the passionate enthusiasm of the religious sentiment in the war against privilege and wrong. And, as far assentiment goes, nothing was ever more generous; few things, I should think, have been more sincere. A humble but very touching illustration of it struck my eye in visiting the great school of the blind in Paris, where the dates of charitable foundations and gifts were the dates of successive stages in the French Revolution, and recalled not the eras of prosperity and glory, not the splendors of aristocracy and court, but the time of terror, when the people felt the first sense of a blood-brought power, and France was in arms against the world.

 

Now from that period of revolution our own has grown, and has received no small share of its spiritual inheritance. And especially among us here in America. When the revolutionary gospel of humanity had become so deeply discred­ited abroad, when the Te Deumof the Holy Alliance had been chanted over its downfall, then it became part of the task of Christian liberalism to give what was true in it afresh consecration, and baptize it anew in the name of the Son of Man. Again, in seeking to state it to ourselves, we think first of Channing,— his fervent assertion of the dignity, of human nature, the glow of his steady hope in the spiritual and social destinies of mankind. And I think we have seen in the older men of that school — older than ourselves, but his disciples — a certain glow of humanity which stayed with them through life, and which the chill of age or long waiting had little effect to quench, as those who have lived in the tropic zone keep something of its warmth through the long frosts of a northern winter. In a certain childlike way, it was strikingly so with my father, who quite honestly felt that the years from seventy to eighty were his happiest years. In a still more marked way, it was so with that saint of all the humanities, Samuel Joseph May, of whom they that loved him may say that only to know him was a sort of sunshine in one nook, at least, of the most unfriendedlife.

 

It is worth while to recall the halo which invested that phase of our mental life, that glow as of dawn which hung round the horizon, so as to relieve against it certain phases in which life has shown itself since. Daylight is better than dawn for most uses, particularly for seeing our way among things that bewilder and delude; but it can never have "theglory of the rising.” Two distinct results may be traced as following that era of fervid proclamation and humanitarian faith. The first is that the faith itself has been cheapened (as it were) by diffusion, and takes the form of that sentimentalism which is one definite source of mischief in the social theories of the day; the second is the shape which the reaction is apt to take with those who have outgrown its crude but ingenuous fervor.[1]

 

Those axioms of political justice, those maxims of social ethics, which make the human side of our religious creed, are each a half truth touching some fact of human nature; the bright or illuminated side, but not the whole of it. To state it as if it were the whole truth makes one of the most troublesome of those fallacies with which morals or politics has to deal. A fallacy of this sort is sometimes a rudimentary or embryonic truth, sometimes a stranded or fossil truth. What is the inspiration of one age may be the delusion of the next; what is the illumination of one period may be the ignis fatuus of another. In a high-flood tide of sentiment action becomes heroic, which when the tide goes down becomes impossible or else insane; witness the Crusades,— glorious, however ferocious, under Godfrey or St. Bernard; a dreary tragedy under Simon Montfort or the comrades of St.Louis. At the same flood-tide, a belief becomes passionate and fervent — a hero's inspiration or a martyr's strength —which fades out afterwards into a symbol, an opinion, a creed, with its divine life all ebbed away. So it was with the trinity, with transubstantiation, with the infallibility of the Bible; so it is with that sentiment of a divine humanity which perpetually tends to fade into the thin, cold light of sentimentalism.

 

There is something ungracious in appearing to disown the popular gospel of our time,— so generous in its sympathy, sogushing in its philanthropy, so zealous in its works of char­ity, so honorable to human nature itself as compared with the creed of any former generation, so congenial to our own best tradition and theory of Christianity. But we cannot fail to see that the waters are ebbing away on which it floated so fair and brave a generation or two ago. Man'sfaith in human nature is undergoing a stern revision, and collation with pitiless facts. What is already part of our tradition — what is taken for granted in easy assent, not fought and won in the mind's own effort after truth and the soul's hunger after righteousness — is no longer the same thing. It is beginning already to be debased and decayed. The same gospel of humanity which Channing made the most advanced interpretation of Christianity in his day,-- the same was greeted with eager welcome as the soul of a new thing in literature when Dickens took his heroes from the poor-house and his heroines from the street. Even then there was something in it melodramatic and false. The same thing at a later stage becomes conscious satire thinly dis­guised, as in Joshua Davidson and Ginx’s Baby: striking at very obvious social wrongs, it suggests no solution, unless it be socialism or else despair.

 

Meanwhile, since the Dickens period, literature has taken quite another phase. It has become critical, cynic, weary. Just as theology becomes erudition, as philosophy turns into science,— so in the arts of culture, mental analysis goes back on enthusiasm and faith. This tone, not quite lacking in George Eliot, strongly colors the atmosphere in which the facts of life and history are set before the sight of a younger generation. So far as we are conscious of it in our own mood, we might suspect it to be the loss of the natural glow of youth as years go by—an outgrowing of the emotions and aspirations of our own past. But it is more than that; inthe generation that comes after ours it is still more marked than it is in us. It has already outgrown, or else has never shared, the generous illusions that made our own inheritance from the revolutionary age. I speak here more especially of the cultured, the literary, the scientific class. In the popu­lar mind, less touched by the critical temper of the time, those vague emotions, those generous maxims, retain more force. But from the inspiration of a reforming zeal they become dogmas of a sentimentalizing policy; from glittering generalities on the banner in front of battle, they degenerate to mere fallacies of social ethics, languid half-truths whose side of truth, even, is not recognized by those who think they have outgrown them.

 

For facts, alas! have not borne out those generous vaticinations. For the first time in the world, a whole people were trusted to exhibit the doctrine of equal rights in the government of a free State, to issue in the present condition of our politics. We fondly hoped, we fervently believed, that the reign of force was passing away before the advance of reason and philanthropy; but behold, five great wars crowded into a little more than twenty years (to omit such tragic episodes as India and Mexico),— wars engaging the most advanced and powerful Christian nations, and each in its way memorable for some new horror, on some vaster scale than all the tragedies of the past had quite prepared us for! Nations and laws, we said, were shaped more andmore by the spirit of Christian philanthropy; but no! blood and iron, says the foremost statesman of the age, blood and iron make the strong cement in which the foundations of States must be laid; and perhaps in all human history thesecret dread of war was never so deeply felt as now, and the open preparations for war were never half so formidable. Was, then, that faith in human nature which made the mostchoice and precious part of our religious inheritance, that which seemed benign and sure as sunlight to our fathers,—was it a delusion and a dream? Such questions many askthemselves in a sort of despair: the answer can come only in a working faith, too busy in act to speculate on result, or else in an intellectual faith that must grow up slowly, among the new conditions of the time. It is quite too soon to do more than guess and hint what the new gospel ofhumanity shall be. Despair is for the idle and unfaithful; hope for the willing and strong.

 

One other topic remains: the bearing on our religious belief of that body of ascertained and verified fact which we call science, together with the theories of man and nature, widely adopted in the name of science.

 

First of all, I do not think we need trouble ourselves in the least about the effect of natural science on our specula­tive theism. The God of scientific theory by no means appeals to devout feeling like the Divine Father of the Christian gospel ; but is at least as good as the subjective Absolute of metaphysics, and infinitely better than the avenging Sovereign of the popular theology. And by the God of scientific theory I mean simply the Force — personal or impersonal —behind all phenomena, with which science, as such, has nothing to do, which it knows only as manifest in the primary qualities of matter. The mystery of the universe itself is so prodigious, that it makes light of all our little differences in the attempt to state it.

 

Consider, for example, what the most bigoted materialist must embrace in his summary of facts. He believes — such is his reliance on the veracity of things — with absolute con­viction, that in spaces immeasurably remote he has ascer­tained the presence of vast nebulae of substances having the exact properties of elements familiar to his experiments; that there, as here, at a given temperature, a given pair of them (as oxygen and hydrogen) will infallibly unite, always and everywhere in proportions exactly fixed, with accu­racy more perfect than any chemist's balance could weigh them out; that the vapor thence resulting will just as infallibly, at a given lower temperature, crystallize in myriads of frosty stars, with every angle measured by a geometry more exquisite than any human draughtsman's: the effect if not the act of perfect Intelligence, most literally present in every spot, in every atom. And this, only one of the simplest of innumerable chemical changes best known to us, a rude inter­mediate process, we may even call it. WHAT MAKES IT? Answer that, and you have answered everything. A single one of Helmholtz's whirling rings (which make the ultimate form of atom as now conceived by many) is a creation as astonishing as a solar system: account for that, and you have accounted for everything. When the same process of unfailing accuracy is traced through increasing complications of being, up to all forms of organic growth, without a single loop-hole left anywhere for chance or caprice — absolute Intelligence seen everywhere in result if not in act,— it seems a very harmless thing, after all, to say that matter, so regarded, has in it "the potency and the promise of all forms of life.” And that "harp of three thousand strings,” which Tyndall describes as existing in the structure of the human ear, shaped by the needs and cravings of the organi­zation, so as to respond to every tone or finest interval of musical sound,— well, if these are the responses and thepotencies existing among material things, I do not know where we could possibly go for a definition of Creative Intel­ligence; infallible, omnipresent, absolute, so well as to the repertory in which a thorough-going materialist keeps his store of facts. Special arguments of efficient or final cause seem dwarfed into nothingness beside the simple statement of the fact; and testify, at best, to the thoughtful and rever­ent habit of the mind that contemplates the fact.

 

Scientific theory, then, I think, is absolutely neutral as to our speculative theism, serving only (as it necessarily must) to state the conditions under which it must be held. But it is a very different thing as it affects our religious theism. When we think of the overwhelming vastness, the appallingindifference to our interests and emotions, to all human pain and guilt, with which the circles of Being sweep their everlasting round, can we — that is, under the ordinary limi­tations of the human mind,— can we think of any conscious sympathy between our own life and that stupendous Force? Can we conceive or retain a belief that events are intelli­gently ordered, to work out the designs of "the highest Wis­dom and the primal Love”? Dante could dare to put those words on the portal of his Hell, because the system of things he knew of was so small and near. Can we still hold them true, as a key to the inmost meaning of our Cosmos, so vast and so remote?

 

In trying to see how this question may possibly show itself to the modern mind, outside of theological circles, one or two considerations occur. I put that question once to Prof. Agassiz; and, while he very earnestly urged the proof of Intelligent Design in the creation, it seemed to me that he did not find in nature any very clear mark of the character of the Creator,— the only point which has any other than a purely speculative interest for us. And, on the speculative side, the answer given by most interpreters of science is simply negative. The being and character of God are topics with which, as such, it would appear that science has nothing whatever to do.

 

 Now it is not easy for us, who are trained to a very keen interest in primal and final causes, to understand this attitude of absolute intellectual indifference. The Positive phil­osophy — or by whatever other name we call the general view of things taken by the scientific mind -- by no means attempts so foolish and hopeless a task as toaccount for the existence of anything by those laws of phenomena with which alone it professes to deal. Mr. Martineau's very elo­quent and noble recent paper, in his discussion with Prof.Tyndall,[2] disclaims any purpose of arguing with any form of Materialism that does not show on its own principles a solution to the problem of existence. Now, no recognized form of Materialism at the present day, surely, attempts any such thing. "But,” said a friend to Prof. Tyndall, "surely you must have some theory of the universe.” "My dear sir,” was the reply, "I have not even a theory of magnetism.” This mood of mind is not necessarily either irreligious or atheistical. We do not, as a general rule, experience an access of religious emotion when we light the gas with a match, although the process is as much more intricate and furious as it is more convenient than the spindle and stick which our ancestors held sacred for thousands of years,because that was the way the miracle of fire had come to them. Yet we do not hold ourselves more undevout than they. "I am no atheist,” Comte protested vehemently: he said it to me about two years before his death. An atheistictheory of the universe he held to be the mere dotage of metaphysical vanity. If you will have a theory of existence, he said, an Intelligent Will is the best you can have.[3]  In his unique fashion he held it the great work of his life to restore to religion its supremacy in all matters of conduct; but all theories of theology, cosmogony, metaphysics, andsidereal astronomy were ruled off with impartial rigor from his intellectual scheme, as they were from his notion of the worship of humanity in a working world.

 

And, again, it is not easy for us, dealing as we do with human life very much on its emotional side, in view of its deeper consolations and nobler hopes, to conceive the condi­tion of mental calm with which it may be looked on by those who think of these as of the dreams of children. What con­solation, we think, for those who do not accept life as the discipline of a Father? What hope to those who anticipate nothing beyond the sensible horizon that bounds our days? Questions such as these we are apt to argue with a certain sense of personal responsibility for the result: as if the reality of a life beyond turned on our own power to make it real to our own thought; as if one forfeited his immortality by being unable to believe in it; as if it were impossible for another to win calmness of mind on any other terms than ours. Yet, as matter of history, we know that Spinoza was singularly calm and pure in his submissive sense of the Uni­versal Order. As matter of fact, we know that life does not lose its keen interest, intellectual or other, for those who de­liberately rule out from their scheme of things all "thoughts that wander through eternity.” I have heard that, in a con­vention of seven hundred European scientists, not one admit­ted the thought of personal immortality as possible. Yet the daily work of science, done by a thousand hands, is as dili­gent, as devoted, in its way quite as contented with itself, as the daily work of ecclesiastics and devotees.

 

But there is a certain spirit and temper, not essentially connected with natural science, and making no part of its creed, which yet claims close affinity with it. And this spirit or temper tends more and more to show itself not simply neutral, not merely contemptuously indifferent, but definitely hostile, not to this or that creed or form of Chris­tianity, not to the mere name of it, but to ideas and emotions that have always been held to belong to its inmost life. Thus that circle of Christian ideas included in the words sin, repentance, pardon, atonement, salvation, holiness which we have ourselves been at so much pains tointerpret in our reading of the religious life,—is, as I under­stand it, radically opposed by the general view of life widely coming to prevail. As far as it does prevail, those words are not merely to be explained, but explained away. This hostility, if it does exist, we ought to look in the face, and understand it if we can.

 

At the outset, the theory of evolution itself is a great shock to the feeling of the sacredness of human nature, so carefully cherished by Christianity; and to the sense of the dignity of human nature, which marked our earlier interpre­tation of Christianity. The shock will pass away in time, and the religious feeling will get adjusted to the new sur­roundings. But let us do justice to the deep repugnancewith which that theory has been resented. That the mythi­cal first human pair — with its halo of marvel and reverence, with the schemes of history and theology grouped about it—should be displaced by the chance coupling of a superior breed of "anthropoid apes” stronger and cunninger than the rest, with lower forms of bestiality in the background; or, if not this, yet the wild and brutish savagery of the primitive man, out of which the race has fought its way to something better through perhaps a thousand centuries' struggle for existence,— all this may be the best way we have at present of stating the facts; but, after all, the facts are not pleasant to look at so, and we have not got used to looking at them yet, in that shape, from the religious point of view. Our debt to the humanity that has suffered and toiled before us is even enhanced by that statement, as has been well said; but somehow the Divine Guiding Hand is not to the common eye so plain to see.

 

And so, again, when we first clearly foresaw the doom that awaits, at however distant date, all forms of life on this planet; when we learned that we could not even look forward to an indefinite career of progress for the human race upon earth, but, as the wave of life has risen, so it must inevitably subside; when we saw, too, that civilization itself is a destructive as well as a creative process, and that the natural treasures we thought exhaustless may be economized but must be spent,— it was with a sort of chill: what are four or five thousand years, what are eight hundred thousand, in comparison with eternity? The destined end of all things and systems visible to us is announced by science with a certain pitiless precision; and no compensation is even suggested for the enormous presumption that is asserted to exist against our hopes of personal immortality. If human life in its origin looks ignoble, under the light of modern theory, even more depressing is the aspect, so regarded, of its destiny and end.

 

For the present, the view of things which I have attempted to state appears to have had two distinct effects on men's imagination. The first is a certain hard, unsympathetic way of regarding human life on a large scale,— history merging into anthropology, and that more and more into natural history, especially when it deals with the lower races orclasses of mankind, and so emerging in great disdain and race or class pride among the superior. We will not be missionaries any more (it says), and sacrifice ourselves forthe barbarian; let the perishing classes go; it is the law of the struggle for existence that they should perish and make place for those worthier to live than they. The other effect is a certain dreary and sad way of seeing things, as if the vast tragedy of human life were vulgarized, from the terror and the pity (which make it human tragedy) being taken out of it, seen from the austere height of modern speculation. This double tendency to aristocratic pride on one side, and a somber pessimism on the other, I do not think can be deniedto be a very common and formidable symptom in the edu­cated mind of the day. If any one should doubt it, I should ask him to consider the tone of Strauss's retrospect, the pyra­mid-like ethnology of Renan, the dreary view of nature and life that impressed itself on the keen susceptibility of John Stuart Mill, the way in which questions of practical philanthropy are dealt with by the school of Herbert Spencer, or what is said of the philosophy of Hartmann, as reflected in the dominant thought of Germany. Involuntarily, when we speak of "the fair humanities of old religion,” we think not of the poetic paganism which Coleridge had in mind when he wrote the phrase, but of our own younger days, as com­pared with much of what we hear now. What attacks only the name and creed of Christendom may not alarm us much; but the spirit now described "must give us pause,” especially any symptoms of it that may have seized on the generation that is advancing to take our place.

 

But of this, two things remain to be said. The first is that science itself is really neutral and not hostile. The representative minds of science are found on both sides of the line that marks the most radical difference of spiritual theory. And that, not only in the case of those who hold the two halves of their thought quite independent and dis­tinct,— as it was said of Faraday, that when he went into his oratory he turned the key of his laboratory,—but with those like Carpenter, men of Christian habit and nurture, who with their best intelligence adjust and harmonize the two. We do not know what shape this adjustment may take in time to come; but we may be very sure that the higher nature of man will always claim its own right some­how.

           

That mind and soul according well

May make one music, as before,

But vaster—

is the very meaning and motive of all sound religious think­ing.

 

The other point is this: that, as science affects to give no explanation or account of things, so these must always be suggested from another source. To say that we cannot dis­cover or conceive the antecedents of the visible universe is not to say that there are no such antecedents: it would weary us even to recount the postulates that must be as­sumed, to make the laws of atavism and natural selection intelligible, or the process of them possible. Science accounts for nothing: it must involve in its premises all it can possi­bly evolve in its results. Mere evolution from below—mechanical force working up into vital, mental, spiritual, without forethought or guidance somewhere —is as abhor­rent to intellectual theory as it is to the moral sense, which postulates moral freedom. Somehow and somewhere—itwould be truer to say always and everywhere—mind acts back on things. The Cosmos itself is blank and unintelligible, except for some equivalent to the thought of a Living God.

 

The time which I have had in mind as a starting-point for the comparison which I have attempted to draw may be set at thirty-five years ago. That was immediately before thedistinct opening of the question of the supernatural — as a question dividing our own ranks — in Theodore Parker's sermon on "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” It was a time when our theories of human nature and society were probably as complacent and sanguine as they have ever been, before or since; when, without the fresh fervor that may have marked them a few years earlier, they gave yet more distinctly its human character to our view of Chris­tianity. It was a time when some of us were still in good faith trying to reconcile the chronology of Genesis with the yet new revelations of the geologists; when the imagina­tion had not at all taken in the enormous expansion that must be given to our notions of time; years before the neb­ula theory had been even distinctly stated to the popular mind;[4] a generation before we saw the schemes of evolu­tion it would lead to. The younger men among us are born to a thoroughly different spiritual heritage from ours. Thisdifference I have endeavored to exhibit, as it will at times show itself even oppressively to our mind. But I do not at all mean to hint that the change is for the worse. On the contrary, while there is many and many a thing that we can only have left behind with reluctance and pain, yet as one is intellectually the "heir of all the ages,” so the later he inherits the richer his inheritance. It seems to me that the spirit of the time we are coming to see is likely to be braver, manlier, honester, in some very important ways, even if less serious and tender in some other ways. At least, we have lived through a generation of very wide and instructive experi­ence; and the temptation to a certain mental timidity, half­-heartedness, and compromise, can never again, I should think, be as strong as some of us have felt it in the past.

 

These three, then — the contrasted aspects of theology, ofhumanity, and of material science,— these three make the features in the retrospect that I have chiefly wished to bring before you. I am tempted to discuss some of them a little further; but there is not time, and it would interfere with my design of presenting if possible a mere statement of the things themselves. In particular, there is a temptation to try my hand at some ideal theory of reconciliation and men­tal harmony among these elements of our experience. But history makes very light of all such ideal theories. We are not responsible for the beginning of things, or for the end of things; though by a sort of generous illusion we are apt to feel so. The only intellectual scheme that history respects is that which grows by its own slow, irresistible process from the contributions of the millions of honest, intelligent, think­ing men, who do each his best to shape his own thought to the demand of his own time. For us, the only answer of any value to any of the great questions respecting God, life, destiny, is the answer we find—very slowly and late in life perhaps —by doing our own best work in our own best way; and in keeping mind and heart always open to the whisper of the Spirit of all Truth. And that is, after all, the best contribution we can make to the larger result, perhaps the only one.

 

So I close. But, before I have quite done, I wish to re­call very briefly the memory of two marked men with whom I was thrown into rather close relation quite early in the period I have retraced; whose paths crossed not far from then; who both took a very conspicuous part in the move­ment we are looking back on; who did their task with equal honesty and daring, with temper not very unlike, but with a difference in aim and result that went on widening to the end.

 

Theodore Parker's intellectual self-assertion — remarkable in one who knew so well the history of human opinion —might be plausibly associated with the much solitary reading of his youth, without the chance of conflict and comparison which college gives; just as his great wealth of sympathy made one who was honored by it feel sometimes as if he drew on the unclaimed stores of it hoarded in the heart of a childless man. Never did a strong nature show a deeper craving for personal affection and the exercise of that power to guide which flows with it; never did a strong and pas­sionate conviction hold itself more patiently in abeyance in intercourse with a younger mind, lest it should even hint an opinion that might check its own free working. If not of the first order of speculative ability, few could be better stored than he with the positive results of speculation; yet of all men in that field I should think that none could have held his religious opinions more absolutely as postulates admitting no debate, and wholly outside of any process of argument that may have led to them. These opinions were implied throughout in the polemics that so swept him aside from the studious, constructive work he had marked out, and with great human passion made him so genuine an icono­clast. Yet there was noticeable, in his later life, a desire to understand, and a leaning of sympathy towards, some materialistic forms of thought widely alien from his own; either because other men's bigotry offended him, or that he would free his soul from the last trace of theological prejudice. It was a temporary work, just then greatly needed, that his generous and large nature took upon itself; and his name, it may be, is best recalled as that of a great personal force in the best life of our time, rather than as the intellectual leader and guide he doubtless hoped to be. His temperament did not admit of justice towards those who honestly differed (as good men did) in theological opinion or public policy. With the most generous human feeling, he could not pardon the seeming want of it in other men; yet he could bear patiently the argument or the rebuke that tried to convince him he was in the wrong. For high courage, I hardly know where we should find his match among men of intellect. It was a moment in history to see him face, with taunt and defiance, anangry crowd in Faneuil Hall, where the Boston regiment mustered on its way to the war in Mexico. And when he went to rest, sixteen years ago, we missed the clearest and boldest voice of all that read to unwilling ears the stern les­son of the time.

 

The hard, restless, implacably honest, and domineering temper of Mr. Brownson had just been greatly softened, at the time I first knew him, by a sudden flow of religious feel­ing in channels that he had thought dried up. A mereaccident, as it were, had turned him from a very positive disciple of the French Eclectics to an equally positive and Unsparing critic of them in the name of a new teacher, whose phrases he presently took for the key to a new rendering of the Christian revelation, —a reading of it which, with a certain pious and grateful fervor, he detailed in a letter to Dr. Charming on the "Mediatorial Life of Jesus.” Begin­ning his expositions with a sweetness and pathos verymarked in so rugged a champion, it was then he uttered the finest sentence of all he ever wrote, in which he spoke of "that glorious inconsistency which does honor to human nature, and makes men so much better than their creeds.” But it was not long before "the old man” in him had its way in vigorous attacks on England and Protestantism. With a curiously slender stock of erudition, he showed an equally extraordinary arrogance and fertility in abstract argument: for example, having toiled with much ado (as he told me) through some fourteen pages of Kant's Introduc­tion — havinggot the idea of it to his own satisfaction,— he proceeded to write more than fifty pages of what I am told by those more competent to judge than I is really instructive exposition. On the 20th of October, 1845, as he told me, he "became a Christian,” that is, a Catholic convert by profes­sion with all which that name might imply; so that when I asked him, "But suppose the process that made you a Cath­olic had been stopped short at a particular point; suppose, for instance, that you had died on the 19th of October,” "I should have gone to hell,” he replied, instantly and grimly,— a reply which left neither room for argument, nor, to tell the truth, for interest in any further argument he might have to offer, as soon as one distinctly saw just what the brief was which he had taken in his new appearance before the court. Absolute honesty of conviction, a complete cutting adrift from whatever may have been his religious moorings in early life, the weariness of a long war with ideas and customs embedded in modern society, and a religious need crav­ing and passionate as in any zealot of any period, with almost as passionate contempt for the opinions of more knowing but weaker men,— these make it not very strange that a man so strong and arrogant should tire of incessant self-conflict, and choose to enlist his splendid fighting quali­ties under a flag that at least made him constructively sure of something. But the lesson of his life for us was all told thirty years ago; and the strong, stormful, tender-hearted man passes away, leaving hardly a ripple in our memory to remind us what his influence had been.

 

I recall these names not idly, but to re-enforce the single thought with which I close. None of the topics and none of the questions I have been dealing with are topics or ques­tions of speculative interest merely. It is HUMAN interests, the character, life, and work of men, that come in play and are touched by them. And perhaps we see this plainest when we remember that there are men who by genius and endowment are leaders of other men,— to whom these spirit­ual things are of incomparably more moment than all per­sonal and terrestrial things; men who willingly, nay, inevi­tably, renounce and cut adrift from everything else, that so they may save their souls. Also, that whatever is honorable and of good report in the world, and whatever makes the world's life worth living, depends on its having and cherish­ing that order of men, to whom circumstance is as nothing, and thought is all.


 


[1] The three following paragraphs were omitted in delivery.

[2]Contemporary Review, February, 1876. The citation from Lange assumes the elementary properties of atoms, which is surely different from explaining them.

[3] See the citations in the Christian Examiner for July, 1857, p. 25.

[4] In the Vestiges of Creation.