I am invited to address you upon the relations of science to religion,-- in reference, as I suppose, to those claims of natural science which have been thought to be antagonistic to supernatural religion, and to those assumptions connected with the Christian faith which scientific men in our day are disposed to question or to reject.
While listening weekly -- I hope with edification -- to the sermons which it is my privilege and duty to hear, it has now and then occurred to me that it might be well if an occasional discourse could be addressed from the pews to the pulpit. But, until your invitation reached me, I had no idea that I should ever be called upon to put this passing thought into practice. I am sufficiently convinced already that the members of a profession know their own calling better than any one else can know it; and in respect to the debatable land which lies along the borders of theology and natural science, and which has been harried by many a raid from both sides, I am not confident that I can be helpful in composing strifes or in the fixing of boundaries; nor that you will agree with me that some of the encounters were inevitable, and some of the alarm groundless. Indeed upon much that I may have to say, I expect rather the charitable judgment than the full assent of those whose approbation I could most wish to win.
But I take it for granted that you do not wish to hear an echo from the pulpit nor from the theological class-room. You ask a layman to speak from this desk because you would have a layman's thoughts, expressed from a layman's point of view; because you would know what a naturalist comes to think upon matters of common interest. And you would have him liberate his mind frankly, unconventionally, and with little as may be of the technicalities of our several professions. Frankness is always commendable; but outspokenness upon delicate and unsettled problems, in the ground of which cherished convictions are rooted, ought to be tempered with consideration. Now I, as a layman, may claim a certain license in this regard; and any over-free handling of sensitive themes should compromise no one but myself.
As a student who has devoted an ordinary lifetime to one branch of natural history, in which he is supposed to have accumulated a fair amount of particular experience and to have gained a general acquaintance with scientific methods and aims, -- as one, moreover, who has taken kindly to the new turn of biological study in these latter years, but is free from partisanship, -- I am asked to confer with other and. younger students, of another kind of science, in respect to the tendencies of certain recently developed doctrines, which in schools of theology are almost everywhere spoken against, but which are everywhere permeating the lay mind -- whether for good or for evil -- and are raising questions more or less perplexing to all of us.
But our younger and middle-aged men must not think that such perplexities and antagonisms have only recently begun. Some of them are very old; some are old questions transferred to new ground, in which they spring to rankness of growth, or sink their roots till they touch deeper issues than before, -- issues of philosophy rather than of science, upon which the momentous question of theism or non-theism eventually turns. Some on the other hand are mere survivals, now troublesome only to those who are holding fast to theological positions which the advance of actual knowledge has rendered untenable, but which they do not well know how to abandon; yet which, in principle, have mostly been abandoned already.
To begin with trite examples. Among the questions which disquieted pious souls in my younger days, but which have ceased to disquiet any of us, are those respecting the age and gradual development of the earth and of the solar system, which came in with geology and modern astronomy. I remember the time when it was a mooted question whether geology and orthodox Christianity were compatible; and I suppose that when, in these quarters, the balance inclined to the affirmative, it was owing quite as much to Professor Silliman's transparent Christian character as to his scientific ability. One need not be an old man to know that Laplace was accounted an atheist because he developed the nebular hypothesis, and because of his remark that he had no need to postulate a Creator for the mathematical discussion of a physical theorem; for a venerable and most religious astronomer, still living, who adopted this hypothesis in his "Exposition of certain Harmonies of the Solar System," published only five years ago, thought it needful to add an appendix, asking the question, "Is the nebular hypothesis, in any form, essentially atheistical in its character?" He answered it in the negative, but with the salvo, that "this hypothesis, having to do with a strictly azoic period, enforces no connection with 'the development theory' of the beginning or of the progress of life."
The great antiquity of the habitable world and of existing races was the next question. It gave some anxiety fifty years ago; but is now, I suppose, generally acquiesced in, -- in the sense that existing species of plants and animals have been in existence for many thousands of years; and, as to their associate, man, all agree that the length of his occupation is not at all measured by the generations of the biblical chronology, and are awaiting the result of an open discussion as to whether the earliest known traces of his presence are in quaternary or in the latest tertiary deposits.
As connected with this class of questions, many of us remember the time when schemes for reconciling Genesis with Geology had an importance in the churches, and among thoughtful people, which few if any would now assign to them; when it was thought necessary -- for only necessity could justify it -- to bring the details of the two into agreement by extraneous suppositions and forced constructions of language, such as would now offend our critical and sometimes our moral sense. The change of view which we have witnessed amounts to this. Our predecessors implicitly held that Holy Scripture must somehow truly teach such natural science as it had occasion to refer to, or at least could never contradict it; while the most that is now intelligently claimed is, that the teachings of the two, properly understood, are not incompatible. We may take it to be the accepted idea that the Mosaic books were not handed down to us for our instruction in scientific knowledge, and that it is our duty to ground our scientific beliefs upon observation and inference, unmixed with considerations of a different order. Then, when fundamental principles of the cosmogony in Genesis are found to coincide with established facts and probable inferences, the coincidence has its value; and wherever the particulars are incongruous, the discrepancy does not distress us, I may add, does not concern us. I trust that the veneration rightly due to the Old Testament is not impaired by the ascertaining that the Mosaic is not an original but a compiled cosmogony. Its glory is, that while its materials were the earlier property of the race, they were in this record purged of polytheism and Nature-worship, and impregnated with ideas which we suppose the world will never outgrow. For its fundamental note is, the declaration of one God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible, -- a declaration which, if physical science is unable to establish, it is equally unable to overthrow.
Now, our general inquiry in this lecture is, What should be the attitude, I will not say of theological students, but of thoughtful men, in respect to scientific beliefs, tendencies, and anticipations, such as we have been considering?
To a certain extent it may well be a waiting attitude. The strictly scientific matters must necessarily be left mainly to the experts, whose very various and independent investigations, pursued under every diversity of bias, must in time reach reasonably satisfactory conclusions. But the naturalists claim no monopoly in the consideration of the great problems which now interest us, in which indeed most of them decline to take any part. Perhaps theological students and divines might be asked to wait until views and hypotheses still ardently controverted among scientific investigators are brought nearer to a settlement. But the disposition to discount expected results, either for or against supernatural religion, has always prevailed. The theologians at least have never waited, and cannot be expected to wait; and while some of their contributions to the subject have been inconsiderate, others have been most valuable.
In any case, there is no call to wait on the ground that the disturbing views are only hypotheses. For, in the first place, we should have long to wait for demonstration one way or the other; and one crop of hypotheses as the fertile seed of another. Besides, hypothesis is the proper instrument for dealing with this class of questions; indeed, it is the essential precursor of every fruitful investigation in physical nature. You can seldom sound with the plummet while standing on the shore. To do this to any purpose, you must launch out on the sea, and brave some risks. Nearly all valuable results have been gained in this way. Newton’s theory of gravitation was a typical hypothesis, and one which happened to be capable of early and sufficient verification. The undulatory theory of light was another. The nebular hypothesis, or portions of it, and the kinetic theory of gases, less verifiable, are accepted willingly because of the success with which they explain the facts. Evolution is a more complex, loose, and less provable hypothesis, or congeries of hypotheses, which can at most have only a relative, though perhaps continually increasing probability from its power of explaining a great variety of facts. Its strength appears on comparing it with the rival hypothesis -- for such it is -- of immediate creation, which neither explains nor pretends to explain any.
How the more exact physical sciences are becoming more reconditely hypothetical, especially in the imagination of entities of which there can be no possible proof beyond their serviceability in explaining phenomena, we must not stop to consider. Only this may be said, that the adage, " Where faith begins science ends" in now well nigh inverted. For faith, in a just sense of the word, assumes as prominent a place in science as in religion. It is indispensable to both.
Let it be noted, moreover, that the case we have to consider does not come before the tribunal of reason with antecedent presumptions all on one side, as theologians generally suppose. They say to the naturalists, not improperly, we will think about adopting your conclusions, contrary as they are to all prepossessions, when they are thoroughly and irrevocably substantiated, and not till then. Your theory may prove true, but it seems vastly improbable. Here the naturalist is ready with a rejoinder: In this world of law you cannot expect us to adopt your assumption of specific creations by miraculous intervention with the course of Nature, not once for all at a beginning, but over and over in time. We will accept intervention only when and where you can convincingly establish it, and where we are unable to explain it away, as in the case of absolute beginning. If the naturalist starts with the presumption against him when he broaches the theory of the descent of later from preceding forms in the course of Nature, so no less does the theologian when in a world governed by law he asserts a break in the continuity of natural cause and effect.
But, indeed, you are not so much concerned to know whether evolutionary theories are actually well-founded or ill-founded, as you are to know whether if true, or if received as true, they would impair the foundations of religion. And, surely, if views of Nature which are incompatible with theism and with Christianity can be established, or can be made as tenable as the contrary, it is quite time that we knew it. If, on the other hand, all real facts and necessary inferences from them can be adjusted to our grounded religious convictions, as well as other ascertained facts have been adjusted, it may relieve many to be assured of it.
The best contribution that I can offer towards the settlement of these mooted questions may be the statement and explanation of my own attitude in this regard, and of the reasons which determine it.
I accept substantially, as facts, or as apparently well-grounded inferences, or as fairly probable opinions, -- according to their nature and degree, -- the principal series of changed views which I brought before you in the preceding lecture. I have no particular predilection for any of them; and I have no particular dread of any of the consequences which legitimately flow from them, beyond the general awe and sense of total insufficiency with which a mortal man contemplates the mysteries which shut him in on every side. I claim, moreover, not merely allowance, but the right to hold these opinions along with the doctrines of natural religion and the verities of the Christian faith. There are perplexities enough to bewilder our souls whenever and wherever we look for the causes and reasons of things; but I am unable to perceive that the idea of' the evolution of one species from another, and of all from an initial form of life, adds any new perplexity to theism.
Suppose now that we are shut up to Nature for the evolution of the forms of living things. As theists, we are not debarred from the supposition of supernatural origination, mediate or immediate. But suppose the facts suggest and inferentially warrant the conclusion that the course of natural history has been along an unbroken line; that -- account for it or not -- the origination of the kinds of plants and animals comes to stand on the same footing as the rest of Nature. As this is the complete outcome of Darwinian evolution, it has to be met and considered.
The inquiry, what attitude should we, Christian theists, present to this form of scientific belief, should not be a difficult one to answer. In my opinion, we should not denounce it as atheistical or as practical atheism or as absurd. Although, from the nature or the case, this conception can never be demonstrated, it can be believed, and is coming to be largely believed; and it falls in very well with doctrine said to have been taught by philosophers and saints, by Leibnitz and Malebranche, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine. So it may possibly even share in the commendation bestowed by the Pope, in a recent sensible if not infallible allocution, upon the teaching or "the Angelic Doctor," and make a part of that genuine philosophy which the Pope declares to stand in no real opposition to religious truth. Seriously it would be rash and wrong for us to declare that this conception is opposed to theism. Our idea of Nature is that of an ordered and fixed system of forms and means working to ultimate ends. If this is our idea of inorganic nature, shall we abandon or depreciate it when we pass from mere things to organisms, to creatures which are themselves both means and ends? Surely it would be suicidal to do so. We may, and indeed we do, question gravely whether all this work is committed to Nature; but we all agree that much is so done, far more than was formerly thought possible; we cannot pretend to draw the line between what may be and what may not be so, done, or what is and what is not so done; and so it is not for us to object to the further extension of the principle on sufficient evidence.
I trust it is not necessary to press this consideration, though it is needful to present it, in order to warn Christian theists from the folly of playing into their adversary's hand, as is too often done.
But I am aware that we have not yet reached the root of the difficulty. We are convinced theists. We bring our theism to the interpretation of Nature, and Nature responds like an echo to our thought. Not always unequivocally: broken, confused, and even contradictory sounds are sometimes given back to us; yet as we listen to and ponder them, they mainly harmonize with our inner idea, and give us reasonable assurance that the God of our religion is the author of Nature. But what of those -- you will say -- who are not already convinced of His existence? We thought that we had an independent demonstration of His existence, and that we could go out into the highways of unbelief and "compel them to come in;" that "the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world were clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made," "so that they are without excuse." We could shut them up to the strict alternative of Divinity or Chance, with the odds incalculably against Chance. But now Darwinism has given them an excuse and placed us on the defensive. Now we have as much as we can do, and some think more, to reshape the argument in such wise as to harmonize our ineradicable belief in design with the fundamental scientific belief of continuity in nature, now extended to organic as well as inorganic forms, to living beings as well as inanimate things. The field which we took to be thickly sown with design seems, under the light of Darwinism, to yield only a crop of accidents. Where we thought to reap the golden grain, we find only tares.
The outlook is certainly serious, yet not altogether disheartening. Perhaps we cannot now safely separate the wheat from the tares, but must let them grow together unto the harvest. Nobody expects in this world to ascertain the limits between design and contingency. Nobody expects to demonstrate any design, except his own to himself by consciousness; he cannot really prove his own to his bosom friend; though his assertion may give his friend, and his actions may give his enemy, convincing reasons for inferring it. But we are sure that every intellectual being has designs, that the reach and pervasiveness of design must be in proportion to the wisdom; and that the designs of the Author of Nature, if any there be, must be all-pervading and fathomless. Yet if they be wrought into a system of adaptations, some of the adaptations themselves may be such as irresistibly to suggest their reason to our minds. At least they suggest reason, even if we fail to apprehend, or wrongly apprehend, the reason. The sense that there is reason why in as innate in man, as that there is cause whereby.
Now, to adopt the apt words of Francis Newman, "after stripping off all that goes beyond the mark of sober and cautious thought, there remain in this world finesses innumerable on the largest and the smallest scale, in which alike common sense and uncommon sense see design, and the only mode of evading this belief is by carrying out the cumbrous Epicurean argument to a length of which Epicurus could not dream. We cannot prove, we are told, that the eye was intended, to see, or the hand to grasp, or the fingers to work delicately. Of course we cannot. But what is the alternative? To believe that it came about by blind chance. No science has any calculus or apparatus to decide between the two theories. Common sense, not science, has to decide, and the most accomplished physical student has in the decision no advantage whatever over a simple but thoughtful man."
Arrangements innumerable, extending through all nature, subserving all ends, of course involve innumerable contingencies. The theist is not expected to have any definite idea of the respective limits of these. He can only guess at the limits of intention and contingency in the actions of his nearest neighbor. The non-theist gains nothing by eliminating instances, unless he can eliminate all design from the system. Until he does this, he gains nothing by showing that particular fitnesses come to pass little by little, and under natural causes. He cannot point to a time where there were no fitnesses, apparent or latent, and if he argues that all fitnesses were germinal in the nebulous matter of our solar system, he does not harm our case. The throwing of design ever so far back in time does not harm it, nor deprive it of its ever-present and ever-efficient character. For, as has been acutely said, "If design has once operated in rerum natura (as in the production of a first life-germ), how can it stop operating and undesigned formation succeed it? It cannot, and intention in Nature having once existed, the test of the amount of that intention is not the commencement but the end, not the first low organism, but the climax and consummation of the whole."
I am not going to re-argue an old thesis of my own that Darwinism does not weaken the substantial ground of the argument, as between theism and non-theism, for design in Nature. I think it brought in no new difficulty, though it brought old ones into prominence. It must be reasonably clear to all who have taken pains to understand the matter that the true issue as is not between Darwinism and direct Creationism, but between design and fortuity, between any intention or intellectual cause and no intention nor predicable first cause. It is really narrowed down to this, and on this line all maintainers of the affirmative may present an unbroken front. The holding of this line secures all; the weakening of it in the attempted defence of unessential and now untenable outposts endangers all.
I have only to add a few observations and exhortations addressed to Christian theists.
If intention must pervade every theistic system of Nature, if we give credit to Mr. Darwin when in this regard he likens his divergence from the orthodox view to the difference between general and particular Providence, is it safe to declare that his theory, and his denial that particular forms were specially created, are practically atheistical? I might complain of this as unfair: it is more to my purpose to complain of it as suicidal. It is in effect holding a theistic conception of Nature for our private use, but acting on the opposite when we would discredit an unwelcome theory. Or else it is trusting so little to our own belief that we abandon it as soon as any weight is laid upon it. As soon as you do this, by conceding that the evolution of forms under natural laws militates against design in Nature, you are at the mercy of those reasoners, who, looking at the probabilities of the case from their own point of view, coolly remark that: --
"On the whole, therefore, we seem entitled to conclude that, during such time as we have evidence of, no intelligence or volition has been concerned in events happening within the range of the solar system, except that of animals living on the planets."
You may say that implicit belief of intention in Nature affords an insufficient foundation for theism. But you are not asked to ground your theism upon it, nor upon the whole world of external phenomena.
You may reiterate that you cannot believe that all these events have occurred under natural laws. Nothing hinders your assuming what you need from the supernatural; but allow that the need of other minds may not be identical with yours.
As I have said before, what you want is, not a system which may be adjusted to theism, nor even one which finds its most reasonable interpretation in theism, but one which theism only can account for. That, it seems to me, you have. An excellent judge, a gifted adept in physical science and exact reasoning, the late Clerk-Maxwell, is reported to have said, not long before he left the world, that he had scrutinized all the agnostic hypotheses he knew of, and found that they one and all needed a God to make them workable.
When you ask for more than this, namely, for that which will compel belief in a personal Divine Being, you ask for that which He has not been pleased to provide. Experience proves that the opposite hypothesis is possible. Some rest in it, but few I think on scientific grounds. The affirmative hypothesis gives us a workable conception of how "the world of forms and means" is related to "the world of worths and ends." The negative hypothesis gives no mental or ethical satisfaction whatever. Like the theory of the immediate creation of forms, it explains nothing.
Here I should close; but, in justice to myself and to you, a word must still be added. You rightly will say that, although theism is at the foundation of religion, the foundation is of small practical value without the superstructure. Your supreme interest is Christianity; and you ask me if I maintain that the doctrine of evolution is compatible with this. I am bound to do so. Yet I have left myself no time in which to vindicate my claim; which I should wish to do most earnestly, yet very deferentially, considering where and to whom I speak. Here we reverse positions: you are the professional experts; I am the unskilled inquirer.
I accept Christianity on its own evidence, which I am not here to specify or to justify; and I am yet to learn how physical or any other science conflicts with it any more than it conflicts with simple theism. I take it that religion is based on the idea of a Divine Mind revealing himself to intelligent creatures for moral ends. We shall perhaps agree that the revelation on which our religion is based is an example of evolution; that it has been developed by degrees and in stages, much of it in connection with second causes and human actions; and that the current of revelation has been mingled with the course of events. I suppose that the Old Testament carried the earlier revelation and the germs of Christianity, as the apostles carried the treasures of the gospel, in earthen vessels. I trust it is reverent, I am confident it is safe and wise, to consider that revelation in its essence concerns things moral and spiritual; and that the knowledge of God's character and will which has descended from the fountainhead in the earlier ages has come down to us, through annalists and prophets and psalmists, in a mingled stream, more or less tinged or rendered turbid by the earthly channels through which it has worn its way. The stream brings down precious gold, and so may be called a golden stream; but the water -- the vehicle of transportation -- is not gold. Moreover the analogy of our inquiry into design in Nature may teach us that we may be unable always accurately to sift out the gold from the earthy sediment.
But, however we may differ in regard to the earlier stages of religious development, we shall agree in this, that revelation culminated, and for us most essentially consists, in the advent of a Divine Person, who, being made man, manifested the Divine Nature in union with the human; and that this manifestation constitutes Christianity.
Having accepted the doctrine of the incarnation, itself the crowning miracle, attendant miracles are not obstacles to belief. Their primary use must have been for those who witnessed them; and we may allow that the record of a miracle cannot have the convincing force of the miracle itself. But the very reasons on which scientific men reject miracles for the carrying on of Nature may operate in favor of miracles to attest an incoming of the supernatural for moral ends. At least they have nothing to declare against them.
If now you ask me, What are the essential contents of that Christianity which is in my view as compatible with my evolutionary conceptions as with former scientific beliefs, it may suffice to answer that they are briefly summed up in the early creeds of the Christian Church, reasonably interpreted. The creeds to be taken into account are only two, -- one commonly called the Apostles', the other the Nicene. The latter and larger is remarkable for its complete avoidance of conflict with physical science. The language in which its users "look for the resurrection of the dead" bears -- and doubtless at its adoption had in the minds of at least some of the council -- a worthier interpretation than that naturally suggested by the short western creed, namely, the crude notion of the revivification of the human body, against which St. Paul earnestly protested.
Moreover, as brethren uniting in a common worship, we may honorably, edifyingly, and wisely use that which we should not have formulated, but may on due occasion qualify, -- statements, for instance, dogmatically pronouncing upon the essential nature of the Supreme Being (of which nothing can be known and nothing is revealed), instead of the Divine manifestation. We may add more to our confession: we all of us draw more from the exhaustless revelation of Christ in the gospels; but this should suffice for the profession of Christianity. If you ask, must we require that, I reply that I am merely stating what I accept. Whoever else will accept Him who is himself the substance of Christianity, let him do it in his own way.
In conclusion, we students of natural science and of theology have very similar tasks. Nature is a complex, of which the human race through investigation is learning more and more the meaning and the uses. The Scriptures are a complex, an accumulation of a long series of records, which are to be well understood only by investigation. It cannot be that in all these years we have learned nothing new of their meaning and uses to us, and have nothing still to learn. Nor can it be that we are not free to use what we learn in one line of study to limit, correct, or remodel the ideas which we obtain from another.
Gentlemen of the Theological School, about to become ministers of the gospel, receive this discourse with full allowance for the different point of view from which we survey the field. If I, in my solicitude to attract scientific men to religion, be thought to have minimized the divergence of certain scientific from religious beliefs, I pray that you on the other hand will never needlessly exaggerate them; for that may be more harmful. I am persuaded that you, in your day, will enjoy the comfort of a much better understanding between the scientific and the religious mind than has prevailed. Yet without doubt a full share of intellectual and traditional difficulties will fall to your lot. Discreetly to deal with them, as well for yourselves as for those who may look to you for guidance, rightly to present sensible and sound doctrine both to the learned and the ignorant, the lowly and the lofty-minded, the simple believer and the astute speculatist, you will need all the knowledge and judgment you can acquire from science and philosophy, and all the superior wisdom your supplications may draw from the Infinite Source of knowledge, wisdom, and grace.