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DARWINISM, AND FAITH IN GOD33Preached in 1871..


PSALM viii. 3-9.

THE sight of nature affects men differently in different ages and countries. We ourselves receive different impressions from natural scenes when the sun shines upon them and when they are enveloped 2in mist and storm; and our perceptions of them also vary with the varying moods of our own minds. In the dark December mornings we can hardly remember the delighted feeling with which we welcomed the dawn in spring amid the singing of innumerable birds. In the Hebrew prophets or psalmists likewise may be traced a double feeling about the external world; there is the consciousness of active power in nature, and also of repose, the sense of rest as well as of motion. It is the ‘glorious God who makes the thunder,’ and at whose presence the animals cower and tremble, who ‘bows the heavens and comes down, and there is darkness under His feet’; and then again appears in brightness and light, as in the eighteenth and twenty-ninth Psalms. Yet there is also another tone heard in the language of the Psalmist: ‘The hills stand about Jerusalem; . even so standeth the Lord round about His people’; or ‘He hath set the round world so fast that it cannot be moved.’ While all over the earth and among all nations ‘the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handywork.’

If we turn from the Hebrew prophets to the Greek mythology we seem to find indications of a time before history, before poetry, of which the analysis of language is the only witness, when the Hellenic gods were powers of nature which in the course of ages became individualized and personified. We have a difficulty in believing this, because in the writings 3or the ages which we know, the traces of such a connexion between the gods and heroes and the Sun or the dawn or the air have disappeared, and the divinities are only magnified men and women, or in a few cases the native gods of the elements. And the Greek or Roman poets, although not wholly wanting in feeling for the beauty of scenery, have much less consciousness of nature than is to be observed in the poetry of most modern European nations. Or perhaps they may have felt as much, but they spoke less; their souls may have drunk in the impressions derived from the deep blue sea, the clear ether, the forms and colours of the landscape, and been moulded by them; but they do not seem to have connected them, as we do, with the thoughts and aspirations of the human heart, or to have found in them the symbols of a world beyond.

In our own century, which seems likewise more than any other to have the power of recalling the past, the sentiment of nature again revives; recollections of childhood are still lingering about the maturity or old age of the world, as we may say, speaking in a figure. The poets of our own age have heard voices in nature which were silent or uninterpreted in the days before them. Scientific discoveries, too, to those who can follow them, give a new interest to ‘the meanest flower that breathes.’ And a portion of this spirit extends to the ordinary observer and the common mind. Every one exults in the fresh air, 4in the pleasant woodland scene, in the wide prospect, in the illimitable ocean. In nature we find that which we all desire—repose: there one of the best and purest pleasures of life comes to us, healthier than the love of art, which sometimes degenerates into sentimentalism, a pleasure of which we can never have too much, and which seems as we grow older to have a more soothing power over us; there the heart that cannot speak may find the alleviation of a calamity too deep for tears, for into that undisturbed region no trouble or sorrow intrudes; there is a great calm, and the peace and order which reign around us may be transferred to our own erring minds. And through the influence of nature we may rise to think of the God of nature and to rest in Him.

Still, there are thoughts about nature which do from time to time arouse disquietude in our minds. The Universe is so vast and we are so small. It is not the language of hyperbole but of fact when we speak of innumerable stars which exist everywhere in the infinity of space, compared with which the life of any individual man is only like a grain of sand, a leaf of the forest, a drop of water spilt upon the earth. Nor is the overpowering thought at all lessened, but the wonder increased, when some one tells us that the world is infinite in minuteness as well as in vastness. We say with a meaning which could not have been equally present to the Psalmist, and perhaps with a sadder accent: ‘Lord, what is man that Thou art 5mindful of him, or the son of man that Thou visitest him? When, again, we consider the immeasurable periods of time during which the earth was a desert chaos torn by natural convulsions, or the later stages of the world’s history, in which the animals were struggling for existence, and huge behemoths and leviathans moved upon land and water: or, later still, when the first traces of man appear in holes of the rocks or lacustrine dwellings—do we not feel a sort of discouragement? and the consciousness of law in all things which had once comforted us begins to terrify us. We are aware that nature, like art, though more beautiful and glorious far, is not the true image of God, and that ‘not there, not there,’ are the foundations of human life to be sought.

And now we meet with another downfall and discouragement. For we are told in books which are in the hands of every one that man is descended from the lower animals. The whole vegetable and animal kingdoms are affirmed to have originated in some primaeval form, and the different species of plants and animals to have become diversified in infinite ages by the ‘survival of the fittest.’ To understand this theory, I suppose that we must go back in imagination to a time when there was no distinction of birds, beasts, and fishes, or even of plants and animals. As in some ancient Cosmogony (for this is a Cosmogony of a new kind) the forms of life began to move, and organized structures came into being; and then, 6slowly and ever more slowly (for there is no need of hurry when you have no limit of time), some faded away and disappeared, and others persisted and prevailed, at first abnormal in some of their parts, but in a succession of generations growing into harmony with themselves. Last of all, in countless millions of years, passing through many stages of half human, half animal existence, man was perfected; his coat of hair fell off, and his brain increased in size; his features became nobler and more expressive, and he walked upright upon the earth.

I think we must acknowledge that this theory, whether true or false, makes a painful impression on the minds of many of us. It deprives us of our golden age to which we as well as the Greeks looked back: it seems to take not only individual men, but the whole race of mankind, out of the providence of God: and it touches our pride as well as our higher feelings to be told that we, who in the language of the Psalmist seem to be a little lower than the angels, are really the descendants of the animals. May not man, if he too is only one of the animals, determine to live and die like the animals? Or at least may not his self-respect be impaired and partially lost, as we may imagine to be the case with some scion of a noble house, who is suddenly informed that all his life long he has been mistaken and that he was really of ignoble birth? Such an announcement might have the effect of degrading him, or he might, upon the revelation 7being made to him, become inspired with a desire to win that honour to which he was no longer born. There would be a considerable risk that he might live indulging his pleasures, as well as hope that he could choose the better part. And this risk besets us at the present moment: while we are discussing the descent of man from the animals, and comparing their bodily structure with our own, may we not insensibly be losing that which distinguishes us from them? That which we see or seem to see, or can represent to ourselves under any form of knowledge or figure of speech, too easily takes the place of that which we do not see and which cannot be similarly represented. All knowledge is good, and all serious inquiry and discussion is good, if we are able to follow them. But there may be a temporary disproportion in the parts of knowledge which has an injurious effect on the characters of individuals and on states of society.

There are different ways in which theories such as I have been describing may be met by those who oppose them. First they may be treated with ridicule; but this, although a natural, is not a good way of meeting them. ‘Fair creature, do you really suppose, or can I suppose, that you are descended from an ape?’ ‘And you man, created in the image of God, which will you have for your ancestor, a monkey or an angel?’ There is no harm in jests of this sort; after dinner, or at a public meeting, they are amusing enough, if not too often repeated. But this is not 8the spirit in which a serious man likes to meet the observations of scientific inquirers; he will not turn the flood of religious prejudices upon them, but try to consider their arguments upon their own merits. Ridicule is the test of weakness or of affectation, but not of truth. And when we remember that forty years ago the same vindications would have been directed against those who maintained the existence of the earth during untold millions of years, and that less than twenty years ago the same incredulous laugh would have been raised at those who affirmed that man had dwelt upon the earth for a hundred thousand or for many hundred thousands of years, although these two facts are now universally admitted by almost all educated men, experience teaches us caution, and we see that we must treat serious things seriously, or the laugh may be turned against ourselves. Especially when we argue from the pulpit we ought to be careful not to supply the chasm in our reasoning by rhetoric, believing that no one does more harm to religion or tends more to undermine the Christian faith than he who appeals eloquently to our religious feelings on behalf of a scientific untruth, or a conclusion not warranted by facts.

I am not going to ridicule or misrepresent the writings of a great naturalist whose genius and character are deserving of our utmost respect. His speculations are the honest result of studies in which very few of us can follow him. It would be almost as impertinent 9in me to praise him as to attempt to criticize him in his own field. I only say these few words lest I should seem to be wanting in respect to one of the greatest living Englishmen. But I think that we who are not naturalists may be allowed to view this famous theory in the light of general considerations. We hear it spoken of everywhere; it seems to touch our own lives; we cannot easily shake off the impressions which it makes upon our minds. A discoverer is not always the best judge of his own discoveries; he is apt to become enamoured of them, and is unable to assign them their due proportions. The very intensity of mind which inspired him with the thought of them prevents his placing himself outside them and calmly reviewing them. He is lost in the light of them; he sees them everywhere, and cannot allow himself to anticipate the judgement which posterity may pass upon him. The absorbing influence of one idea is apt to make us regardless or unobservant of facts which lead in an opposite direction. This theory has served to draw into light one class of phenomena; the discovery of some other general law, of which the nature cannot yet be foreseen, may serve to collect facts of another kind. Therefore no true friend of science will be jealous of our hesitating, or perhaps delaying a little, when implicit assent is demanded to a great generalization. We are certainly not wrong in asking to know with some precision what are the limits of this generalization, which is threatening to 10swallow up all science. We shall do well to consider what it does not explain, as well as what it does. Add to this that general ideas exercise a great power over us; they are very fascinating and attractive; the simplest account always seems to be the truest—one idea is better than two—although there may really be in the working of nature and in the causes of historical events a subtlety and complexity far be yond human thoughts to reach. The attraction is irresistible when the animal or vegetable kingdom is capable or supposed to be capable of being explained in two words. We are very much inclined to believe what we so easily apprehend. Then again our teacher may be an observer of nature, and the general ideas of which I have been speaking may be supported by innumerable minute and curious facts, and thus acquire the name and authority of inductive science. But we must not therefore infer that the minute facts are adequate or sufficient to prove the principle assumed. A theory which is true partially will easily claim to be universal—the ‘may’ soon passes into a ‘must.’ In the void of human knowledge any account is better than none. And I need hardly observe that mere calmness of style, though an admirable quality, is no proof of the soundness of an argument; the greatest fallacies may be most clearly expressed, and the greatest untruths are sometimes found in the most logical and consecutive writings. In what remains of this sermon I shall venture to 11offer some remarks on the famous theory to which I have been referring, and which I will consider, first of all, from the intellectual side. There are some reasons why we should suspend our judgement, and not hastily decide that natural selection or the survival of the fittest is the sole or chief cause of the diversities of animal life. Secondly, without deter mining whether this theory is true or untrue, or in what degree true, of which we can only judge in a very general manner, I shall endeavour to lay before you some considerations of another kind, which may be placed in the opposite scale, tending to show that, whatever may be the origin of man, when we regard him as a moral and religious being we are concerned, not with what he has been, but with what he is. Whether his history is a progress or a decline, whether he has risen from the animals or fallen from some other sphere, he remains what he was before, endowed with reason and conscience, capable of knowing God and of contemplating His works. When the shock of novelty is over, he resumes the even path of a Christian life.

1. Must we not begin by asking the question: Whether this theory is the whole explanation of the origin of man and animals, or a part only? And if a part, what part—a fifth, a tenth, a twentieth? for we are obliged to recall our minds by numbers from the influence of imagination. In the persistence of the strongest, in the survival of the fittest, we recognize 12a true cause of change in the forms of animal life: the question to which we have as yet no distinct answer is—How far has the operation of this cause extended? Or, if we are answered that this is the only one, and that there is no other, because in infinite ages the least cause, like the trickling of a stream, may produce the greatest effects—and with due regard to the economy of the world we ought not to assume two causes when one is sufficient—we wonder how there can be any knowledge of this exhaustive nature. May there not have been an adaptation of animals to their circumstances, such as is supposed in another famous theory, which in the course of infinite ages—that unknown quantity has always to be added—may have also modified them? May there not have been latent in the bosom of nature other causes which we are unable to calculate—changes of atmosphere, epidemics, diseases, currents of air or water, rapid alter nations of heat and cold, different proportions of the elements, or perhaps causes the very nature of which is unknown to us, as much as electricity was to the ancients or to the scientific inquirer of two centuries ago? These are the reflections which strike even an unlearned person. The mystery of reproduction is the greatest of all the mysteries of animal life, and most likely to be affected by subtle influences. And may not the instincts of animals, like the reason of man, have had the effect sometimes of preserving the weakest as well as the strongest? When we think of 13some of the more wonderful phenomena of animal life, of the polities of ants and bees, and of the intelligence of some of the larger animals, we can hardly tell how far nature may have developed instincts of concert and self-defence, which would prevent them from being passive victims of the struggle for existence.

Again, the terms which are used in these speculations are to a great extent ambiguous. When we speak of ‘evolution,’ or ‘development,’ or even of the more familiar terms, force, cause, law, we are insensibly generalizing in a single word processes which may be infinitely various and belong to different spheres of knowledge. The laws of mind are not the same as the laws of external nature; nor the history of the human mind the same as the history of external nature. The evolution of thought is altogether different from the evolution of the animal creation. Are we not transferring the language of physics to metaphysics? Nor is the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ free from ambiguity. For who are the animals fittest to survive? Not necessarily those who are externally most in harmony with their circumstances or framed on the most symmetrical model. In animals, as in men, there may have been some hidden force which would more than compensate for adverse external conditions, like that hidden force in human constitutions which gives longevity, and is partly the same with health and strength, partly different from them. Amid varying circumstances and in infinite 14ages can any one say what forces may have acted in the regular course of nature?

Passing on to the condition of man, we are ready to acknowledge that man is an animal, and dependent like other animals in his bodily structure on physiological laws. We seem to trace also in animals the rudiments of many human qualities good and bad. There is jealousy and strife and a natural state of war fare among many of them; there is vanity among the birds of the air, like the vanity of dress or of personal attractions among human beings; there is subtlety and craft, which enables them to get an enemy into their power or to defend themselves against him; there are also vestiges of the higher qualities of gratitude, of family attachment, of devotion to a master; and they seem to be capable of a sense of honour or duty, and of distinguishing between hurt and injury. Their likeness to us doubtless gives them an additional claim on our sympathy: as has been well said, ‘Humanity towards the lower animals is one of the best tests of the civilization of a nation.’ Nor can we deny to them a certain amount of progress, any more than we can affirm that man is always progressing. They too have their polities and a sort of society; they imitate one another and learn of one another; they are not without a limited reason which some times enables them to meet new circumstances; and like mankind they have a latent and apparently inherited experience.


But after making all these allowances, the distance is not sensibly diminished between man and the lower animals. Even in his external characteristics the difference is enormous. How in any struggle for existence could the brain of man have been developed, which is said to be three times as great in proportion to his size as that of any known animal? How did he acquire his upright walk, or the divisions of his fingers, or the smoothness of his skin, all which might be useful or suitable to him in his human condition, but could not have tended to preserve him in the previous struggle? How did he learn to make or use tools, and especially the greatest of all of them, that is, fire? Who taught him language, or gave him the power of reflecting on himself, or imparted to him the reverence for a superior being, of which there seem to be no traces among the animals? We look at pictures in which the bones of men, or, perhaps the early forms of existence before birth, are shown to be more alike than we in our ignorance had supposed. But we always knew that there were real resemblances between men and the animals, and a few degrees more or less make no differences worth speaking of. For we observe that the approximation, though striking to the eye, is not in what is characteristic of man, but in what is not characteristic of him. Still the chasm remains not really lessened between the jabbering of animals and the language of man, between the stationariness of animals and the progress of man, 16between the instinct or imitative powers of animals and the reason of man.

And when we complain that the links are missing which are required to prove the continuity of human and animal life, we are told in reply that the record is fragmentary; that a few pages out of the whole book, a few lines out of each page are alone preserved to us. Are we not then being asked to decide the question having a very small part of the evidence before us? If the disproof is taken away, is not the proof also taken away? A writing which is crossed, which is inverted, which is disguised, may almost always be deciphered; but that of which the greater part is lost cannot be deciphered with certainty, because the part which is lost may probably affect the meaning of that which has been preserved. If we had the whole record before us do we suppose that our conclusions would remain unaltered? No naturalist has as yet been able to give a satisfactory account of the different species of man, in which the differences seem to be least: can we entirely trust them when they speak to us of his origin? Shall we not rather wait and see whether, in a few years, when we are no longer under the dominion of a new idea, this famous theory, though admitted to be a valuable contribution to natural history, may no longer be regarded as an exhaustive account of the origin of men and animals? Hypothesis is a most gracious aid to science, but is there 17not a danger of the exact sciences becoming inexact if they are allowed to entertain conjectures so far in advance of facts?

2. Physical science seems to be making great progress amongst us, and is likely to have considerable effects upon morality and religion. We may welcome this new knowledge, and gratefully acknowledge that many improvements in the physical, and indirectly in the moral, state of mankind are derived from it. But we must acknowledge that there is a risk of one part of knowledge becoming disproportioned to the rest. If, as some dream, we were to attempt to place life on a merely physical basis, the noblest things in the world, the greatest examples of men and the highest fruits of mind, would disappear; for these would be substituted mere physical improvement, and possibly actions which are now regarded as crimes might become virtues. Health and comfort and happiness are good, but there are higher goods, virtue and truth and the service of God; and as rational beings we cannot pursue after the one without seeking for the other.

Turning now to this other aspect of the subject, I shall endeavour to bring to your minds some considerations tending to counteract these materializing influences, which seem to cloud human life as time goes on.

Let us consider that the highest and best things on earth appertaining to the inner life of man, such as the 18resolute struggle against evil (whether the lesser struggle against the evil of our own hearts, or the greater struggle in some public arena), the living or perhaps dying for others, the priceless value of innocence, the disinterested heroism of affection, the thoughts of great men in other ages, the battles which have been fought on behalf of the truth, the example and teaching of our Saviour, still remain what they were, though for a time our thoughts may have been turned in another direction. There is an instinct of a future which is higher than the state in which we live, not that kind of instinct which we have in common with the brutes, but an instinct of another sort, which seems to grow stronger in us as we be come better. There is a faith that when we are no longer the servants of our own or other men’s prejudices or passions, but are seeking to live in purity and truth, God is revealing Himself to us. There is a voice within us which is always repeating, in fainter or in louder accents, that we must avoid the evil and choose the good; that we were placed here not to do our own will, but to follow Christ; that we are not to pass our lives in indolence, but to be up and doing in the service of God, and not desiring our own honour, but for the sake of the work possessing our souls in sincerity and truth.

These do not cease to be, or to be obligations on us, because the past history of man is shown to be in some important respects different from what we once 19supposed, or because the action of the mind is proved to be connected with the nerves of the brain, or because the Gospel narrative is sometimes viewed by the light of a microscopic criticism. I know that in the present day we cannot avoid reading books which come into conflict with popular views of religion, or, perhaps, with the simple teaching of a Christian home, and for a time they make a great impression upon us. But we soon recover the balance of our minds; we see that there are some things true and some things false in these books; and that none of them have overturned the Christian religion, though many of them have considerably affected the opinions of Christians. For the truth that is in them we are thankful: if they have freed us from error and superstition they have done us a service; though they may not have guided us into any higher truth they may have diminished the differences which separate us from other men and from other religions; or they may have taught us not to confound the accidents with the sub stance of religion. Still, we may say with St. Paul: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ,’ or of our brethren? If we ever had any, that remains: the more real our religion is the less we are liable to be shaken by intellectual convulsions. If a man fancies that his faith is failing him, he must try to build up in deeds what he is losing in words; he must find meeting places of philosophy and religion, such as humility, or the sense of duty, or the acknowledgement of the 20ignorance of man, or the consciousness that he is not of the world, or seeking the things of the world, even as Christ was not of the world. He must be desirous to live, even in the truth which he knows not. He may be asking himself what more he can do for others; what more for his own good. He may mean the same thing, or nearly the same thing, as Christians in general, and yet hardly venture to use any of their expressions. He must consider how he can acquire in this floating world some strength or fixedness of character; not merely receiving impressions from books, or passing from Christianity to the influence of art and back again, but having some short and simple principles like those of the Hebrew prophets ingrained in him—‘to do justice, to love truth, and to walk humbly with God.’

There is nothing really opposed in religion and science, though there are many false oppositions as well as false reconcilements of them. But we must be content to see in times of transition their paths diverge when the one goes forward and the other remains behind, or when the vigour of youth in the one comes into conflict with the traditions of antiquity in the other. Meanwhile, let us not be too much the servants of the hour, falling under the dominion of this or that theory which happens to be in the air, but balancing the present with the future and with the past, and not forgetting the great thoughts of other ages in the progress of natural knowledge or 21of material well-being. Still, we know that the advancing tide of natural science cannot be driven back; nor is there the least reason to suppose that the sentiment of religion will ever be banished from the human heart; and this consideration may lead us to expect a time when they may be reconciled, if not perfectly, yet more than at present; when religion may be enlightened, extended, purified, and philosophy or science inspired and elevated, and both allied together in the service of God and man.

And even now we can imagine individuals in whom no such opposition is found to exist, whose minds shrink from no investigation, and are not startled by any real conclusions from facts; who have a sense of the perfect innocence of critical inquiries into Scripture and speculations about the origin of man, and yet live in faith and in communion with God, and are impartial, not because they have no religion, but because they leave the result with Him. They are sensible that God has assigned them a work which is as much His work as the preaching of the Gospel by ministers of religion. Regarding all truth as a revelation of God, they have no egotism which leads them to maintain their own ideas or discoveries in preference to those of others. They receive the wonders of nature like the kingdom of God in the Gospel, knowing that in a few years their powers will begin to fail, and this will be the only way in which they can receive 22them. Already they seem to themselves like children playing upon the sands of the ocean. And in the hour of death, when their eyes close upon external nature, they know that He is mindful of them, and that to Him they will return.

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