The Origin of the World According to Revelation and Science

Library of Alexandria
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Have we or can we have any certain solution of those two great questions—Whence are all things? and Whither do all things tend? No thinking man is content to live merely in a transitory present, ever emerging out of darkness and ever returning thither again, without knowing any thing of the origin and issue of the world and its inhabitants. Yet it would seem that to-day men are as much in uncertainty on these subjects as at any previous time. It even appears as if all our added knowledge would only, for a time at least, deprive us of the solutions to which we trusted, and give no others in their room. Christians have been accustomed to rest on the cosmogony and prophecy of the Bible; but we are now frankly told on all hands that these are valueless, and that even ministers of religion more or less "sacrifice their sincerity" in making them the basis of their teachings. On the other hand, we are informed that nothing can be discerned in the universe beyond matter and force, and that it is by a purely material and spontaneous evolution that all things exist. But when we ask as to the origin of matter and force, and the laws which regulate them—as to the end to which their movement is tending, as to the manner in which they have evolved the myriad forms of life and the human intelligence itself—the only answer is that these are "insoluble mysteries."

Are we, then, to fall back on the real or imagined revelations and traditions of the past, and to endeavor to find in them some foothold of assurance; or are we to wait till further progress in science may have cleared up some of the present mysteries? Whatever may be said of the former alternative, all honest students of science will unite with me in the admission that the latter is hopeless. We need not seek to belittle the magnificent triumphs of modern science. They have been real and stupendous. But it is of their very nature to conduct us to ultimate facts and laws of which science can give no explanation; and the further we push our inquiries the more insuperably does the wall of mystery rise before us. It is true we can furnish the materials for philosophical speculations which may be built on scientific facts and principles; but these are in their nature uncertain, and must constantly change as knowledge advances. They can not solve for us the great practical problems of our origin and destiny.

In these circumstances no apology is needed for a thorough and careful inquiry into those foundations of religious belief which rest on the idea of a revelation of origins and destinies made to man from without, and on which we may build the superstructure of a rational religion, giving guidance for the present and hope for the future. In the following pages I propose to enter upon so much of this subject as relates to the origin and earliest history of the world, in so far as these are treated of in the Bible and in the traditions of the more ancient nations; and this with reference to the present standpoint of science in relation to these questions.

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Library of Alexandria
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Feb 18, 2016
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The infidelity and the contempt for sacred and spiritual things which pervade so much of our modern literature are largely attributable to the prevalence of that form of philosophy which may be designated as Agnostic Evolution, and this in its turn is popularly regarded as a result of the pursuit of physical and natural science. The last conclusion is obviously only in part, if at all, correct, since it is well known that atheistic philosophical speculations were pursued, quite as boldly and ably as now, long before the rise of modern science. Still, it must be admitted that scientific discoveries and principles have been largely employed in our time to give form and consistency to ideas otherwise very dim and shadowy, and thus to rehabilitate for our benefit the philosophical dreams of antiquity in a more substantial shape. In this respect the natural sciences—or, rather, the facts and laws with which they are conversant—merely share the fate of other things. Nothing, however indifferent in itself, can come into human hands without acquiring thereby an ethical, social, political, or even religious, significance. An ounce of lead or a dynamite cartridge may be in itself a thing altogether destitute of any higher significance than that depending on physical properties; but let it pass into the power of man, and at once infinite possibilities of good and of evil cluster round it according to the use to which it may be applied. This depends on essential powers and attributes of man himself, of which he can no more be deprived than matter can be denuded of its inherent properties; and if the evils arising from misuse of these powers trouble us, we may at least console ourselves with the reflection that the possibility of such evils shows man to be a free agent, and not an automaton.

All this is eminently applicable to science in its relation to agnostic speculations. The material of the physical and natural sciences consists of facts ascertained by the evidence of our senses, and for which we depend on the truthfulness of those senses and the stability of external nature. Science proceeds, by comparison of these facts and by inductive reasoning, to arrange them under certain general expressions or laws. So far all is merely physical, and need have no connection with our origin or destiny or relation to higher powers. But we ourselves are a part of the nature which we study; and we cannot study it without more or less thinking our own thoughts into it. Thus we naturally begin to inquire as to origins and first causes, and as to the source of the energy and order which we perceive; and to these questions the human mind demands some answer, either actual or speculative. But here we enter into the domain of religious thought, or that which relates to a power or powers beyond and above nature. Whatever forms our thoughts on such subjects may take, these depend, not directly on the facts of science, but on the reaction of our minds on these facts. They are truly anthropomorphic. It has been well said that it is as idle to inquire as to the origin of such religious ideas as to inquire as to the origin of hunger and thirst. Given the man, they must necessarily exist. Now, whatever form these philosophical or religious ideas may take—whether that of Agnosticism or Pantheism or Theism—science, properly so called, has no right to be either praised or blamed. Its material may be used, but the structure is the work of the artificer himself.

 The science of the earth and the history of man, though cultivated by very different classes of specialists and in very different ways, must have their meeting-place. They must indeed not only meet, but overlap and run abreast of each other throughout nearly the whole time occupied by the existence of man on the earth. The geologist, from his point of view, studies all the stratified crust of the earth, down to the mud deposited by last year's river inundations. The historian, aided by the archæologist, has written and monumental evidence carrying him back to the time of the earliest known men, many thousands of years ago. Throughout all this interval the two records must have run more or less parallel to each other, and must be in contact along the whole line. The geologist, ascending from the oldest and lowest portions of the earth's crust, and dealing for millions of years with physical forces and the instinctive powers of animals alone, at length as he approaches the surface finds himself in contact with an entirely new agency, the free-will and conscious action of man. It is true that at first the effects of these are small, and the time in which they have been active is insignificant in comparison with that occupied by previous geological ages; but they introduce new questions which constantly grow in importance, down to those later times in which human agency has so profoundly affected the surface of the earth and its living inhabitants. Finally, the geologist is obliged to have recourse to human observation and testimony for his information respecting those modern causes to which he has to appeal for the explanation of former changes, and has to adduce effects produced by human agency in illustration of, or in contrast with, mutations in the pre-human periods. The historian, on the other hand, finds, as he passes backward into earlier ages, documentary evidence failing him, and much of what he can obtain becoming mythical, vague or uncertain, or difficult of explanation by modern analogies, until at length he is fain to have recourse to the pick-axe and spade, and to endeavour to disinter from the earth the scanty relics of primeval man, much as the geologist searches in the bedded rocks for the fossils which they contain. He has even learned to use for these earliest ages the term prehistoric, and so practically to transfer them to the domain of the archæologist and geologist.
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