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FOR WHAT MAN KNOWETH THE THINGS OF A MAN, SAVE THE SPIRIT OF MAN WHICH IS IN HIM? EVEN SO THE THINGS OF GOD KNOWETH NO MAN, BUT THE SPIRIT OF GOD.—1 CORINTHIANS II. 11.
THE conclusion to be drawn from our previous inquiries is, that the doctrines of Revealed Religion, like all other objects of human thought, have a relation to the constitution of the thinker to whom they are addressed; within which relation their practical application and significance is confined. At the same time, this very relation indicates the existence of a higher form of the same truths, beyond the range of human intelligence, and therefore not capable of representation in any positive mode of thought. Religious ideas, in short, like all other objects of man’s consciousness, are composed of two distinct elements,—a Matter, furnished from without, and a Form, imposed from within by the laws of the mind itself. The latter element is common to all objects of thought as such: the former is the peculiar and distinguishing feature, by which the doctrines of Revelation are distinguished from other religious representations, derived from natural sources; or by which, in more remote comparison, religious ideas in general 159 may be distinguished from those relating to other objects. Now it is indispensable, before we can rightly estimate the value of the various objections which are adduced against this or that representation of Christian doctrine, to ascertain which of these elements it is, against which the force of the objection really makes itself felt. There may be objections whose force, such as it is, tells against the revealed doctrine alone, and which are harmless when directed against any other mode of religious representation. And there may also be objections which are applicable to the form which revealed religion shares in common with other modes of human thinking, and whose force, if they have any, is in reality directed, not against Revelation in particular, but against all Religion, and indeed against all Philosophy also. Now if, upon examination, it should appear that the principal objections which are raised on the side of Rationalism properly so called,—those, namely, which turn on a supposed incompatibility between the doctrine of Scripture and the deductions of human reason, are of the latter kind, and not of the former, Christianity is at least so far secure from any apprehension of danger from the side of rational philosophy. For the weapon with which she is assailed exhibits its own weakness in the very act of assailing. If there is error or imperfection in the essential forms of human thought, it must adhere to the thought criticizing, no less than to the thought criticized; and the result admits of but two legitimate alternatives. Either we must abandon ourselves to an absolute Skepticism, which believes nothing and disbelieves nothing, and which thereby destroys itself in believing that nothing is to be believed; or we must confess that reason, in thus criticizing, has transcended its legitimate province: that it has failed, not 160 through its inherent weakness, but through being misdirected in its aim. We must then shift the inquiry to another field, and allow our belief to be determined, not solely by the internal character of the doctrines themselves, as reasonable or unreasonable, but partly at least, by the evidence which can be produced in favor of their asserted origin as a fact. The reasonable believer, in short, must abstain from pronouncing judgment on the nature of the message, until he has fairly examined the credentials of the messenger.
There are two methods by which such an examination of objections may be conducted. We may commence by an analysis of thought in general, distinguishing the Form, or permanent element, from the Matter, or variable element; and then, by applying the results of that analysis to special instances, we may show, upon deductive grounds, the formal or material character of this or that class of objections. Or we may reverse the process, commencing by an examination of the objections themselves; and, by exhibiting them in their relation to other doctrines besides those of Revelation, we may arrive at the same conclusion as to their general or special applicability. The former method is perhaps the most searching and complete, but could hardly be adequately carried out within my present limits, nor without the employment of a language more technical than would be suitable on this occasion. In selecting the latter method, as the more appropriate, I must request my hearers to bear in mind the general principles which it is proposed to exhibit in one or two special instances. These are, first, that there is no rational difficulty in Christian Theology which has not its corresponding difficulty in human Philosophy: and, secondly, that, therefore we may reasonably conclude that the stumblingblocks 161 which the rationalist professes to find in the doctrines of revealed religion arise, not from defects peculiar to revelation, but from the laws and limits of human thought in general, and are thus inherent in the method of rationalism itself, not in the objects which it pretends to criticize.
But, before applying this method to the peculiar doctrines of the Christian revelation, it will be desirable to say a few words on a preliminary condition, on which our belief in the possibility of any revelation at all is dependent. We must justify, in the first instance, the limitations which have been assigned to human reason in relation to the great foundation of all religious belief whatsoever: we must show how far the same method warrants the assertion which has been already made on other grounds; namely, that we may and ought to believe in the existence of a God whose nature we are unable to comprehend; that we are bound to believe that God exists; and to acknowledge Him as our Sustainer and our Moral Governor: though we are wholly unable to declare what He is in His own Absolute Essence.(1)
Many philosophical theologians, who are far from rejecting any of the essential doctrines of revelation, are yet unwilling to ground their acceptance of them on the duty of believing in the inconceivable. “The doctrine of the incognizability of the Divine essence,” says the learned and deep-thinking Julius Müller, “with the intention of exalting God to the highest, deprives Him of the realities, without which, as it is itself obliged to confess, we cannot really think of Him. That this negative result, just as decidedly as the assumption of an absolute knowledge of God, contradicts the Holy Scriptures, which especially teach that God becomes revealed in Christ, as it does that 162 of the simple Christian consciousness, may be too easily shown for it to be requisite that we should here enter upon the same: it is also of itself clear into what a strange position theology must fall by the renunciation of the knowledge of its essential object.”(2) As regards the former part of this objection, I endeavored, in my last Lecture, to show that a full belief in God, as revealed in Christ, is not incompatible with a speculative inability to apprehend the Divine Essence. As regards the latter part, it is important to observe the exact parallel which in this respect exists between the fundamental conception of Theology and that of Philosophy. The Principle of Causality, the father, as it has been called, of metaphysical science,(3) is to the philosopher what the belief in the existence of God is to the theologian. Both are principles inherent in our nature, exhibiting, whatever may be their origin, those characteristics of universality and certainty which mark them as part of the inalienable inheritance of the human mind. Neither can be reduced to a mere logical inference from the facts of a limited and contingent experience. Both are equally indispensable to their respective sciences: without Causation, there can be no Philosophy; as without God there can be no Theology. Yet to this day, while enunciating now, as ever, the fundamental axiom, that for every event there must be a Cause, Philosophy has never been able to determine what Causation is; to analyze the elements which the causal nexus involves; or to show by what law she is justified in assuming the universal postulate upon which all her reasonings depend.(4) The Principle of Causality has ever been, and probably ever will be, the battle ground on which, from generation to generation, Philosophy has struggled for her very existence in the death-gripe of Skepticism; and at 163 every pause in the contest, the answer has been still the same: “We cannot explain it, but we must believe it.” Causation is not the mere invariable association of antecedent and consequent: we feel that it implies something more than this.(5) Yet, beyond the little sphere of our own volitions, what more can we discover? and within that sphere, what do we discover that we can explain?(6) The unknown something, call it by what name you will,—power, effort, tendency,—still remains absolutely concealed, yet is still conceived as absolutely indispensable. Of Causality, as of Deity, we may almost say, in the emphatic language of Augustine, “Cujus nulla scientia est in anima, nisi scire quomodo eum nesciat.”(7) We can speak out boldly and clearly of each, if we are asked, what it is not: we are silent only when we are asked, what it is. The eloquent words of the same great father are as applicable to human as to divine Philosophy:7575 “God is ineffable; more easily do we tell what He is not, than what He is. You think of earth; this is not God: of the sea; this is not God: of all things that are on the earth, men and animals; these are not God: of all that are in the sea, that fly through the air; these are not God: of whatever shines in heaven, stars, sun, and moon; these are not God: the heaven itself; this is not God. Think of Angels, Virtues, Powers, Archangels, Thrones, Seats, Dominations; these are not God, And what is He? This only can I tell, what He is not. “Deus ineffabilis est: facilius dicimus quid non sit, quam quid sit. Terram cogitas; non est hoc Deus: mare cogitas; non est hoc Deus: omnia quæ sunt in terra, homines et animalia; non est hoc Deus: omnia quæ sunt in mari, quæ volant per aerem; non est hoc Deus: quidquid lucet in cœlo, stellæ, sol et luna; non est hoc Deus: ipsum cœlum; non est hoc Deus. Angelos cogita, Virtutes, Potestates, Archangelos, Thronos, Sedes, Dominationes; non est hoc Deus. Et quid est? Hoc solum potui dicere, quid non sit.”(8)164
From the fundamental doctrine of Religion in general, let us pass on to that of Christianity in particular. “The Catholic Faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” How, asks the objector, can the One be Many, or the Many One? or how is a distinction of Persons compatible with their perfect equality?(9) It is not a contradiction to say, that we are compelled by the Christian Verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord; and yet are forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.(10)
To exhibit the philosophical value of this objection, we need only make a slight chance in the language of the doctrine criticized. Instead of a plurality of persons in the Divine Unity, we have only to speak of a plurality of Attributes in the Divine Essence. How can there be a variety of Attributes, each infinite in its kind, and yet all together constituting but one Infinite? or how, on the other hand, can the Infinite be conceived as existing without diversity at all? We know, indeed, that various attributes exist in man constituting in their plurality one and the same conscious self. Even here, there is a mystery which we cannot explain; but the fact is one which we are compelled, by the direct testimony of consciousness, to accept without explanation. But in admitting, as we are compelled to do, the coexistence of many attributes in one person, we can conceive those attributes only as distinct from each other, and as limiting each other. Each mental attribute is manifested as a separate and determinate mode of consciousness, marked off and limited, by the very fact of its manifestation as such. Each is developed in activities and operations from which the others are excluded. But this type of the conscious existence fails us altogether, when we 165 attempt to transfer it to the region of the Infinite. That there can be but one Infinite, appears to be a necessary conclusion of reason; for diversity is itself a limitation: yet here we have many Infinites, each distinct from the other, yet all constituting one Infinite, which is neither identical with them nor distinguishable from them. If Reason, thus baffled, falls back on the conception of a simple Infinite Nature, composed of no attributes, her case is still more hopeless. That which has no attributes is nothing conceivable; for things are conceived by their attributes. Strip the Infinite of the Attributes by which it is distinguished as infinite, and the Finite of those by which it is distinguished as finite; and the residue is neither the Infinite as such, nor the Finite as such, nor any one being as distinguished from any other being. It is the vague and empty conception of Being in general, which is no being in particular,—a shape,
“If Shape it might be called, that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or Substance might be called, that Shadow seemed,
For each seemed either.”(11)
The objection, “How can the One be Many, or the Many One?” is thus so far from telling with peculiar force against the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity, that it has precisely the same power or want of power, and may be urged with precisely the same effect, or want of effect, against any conception, theological or philosophical, in which we may attempt to represent the Divine Nature and Attributes as infinite, or, indeed, to exhibit the Infinite at all. The same argument applies with equal force to the conception of the Absolute. If the Divine Nature is conceived as being nothing more than the sum of the Divine Attributes, it is not 166 Absolute; for the existence of the wilole, wtill be dependent on the existence of its several parts. It; on the other hand, it is something distinct from the Attributes, and capable of existing without them, it becomes, in its absolute essence, an absolute void,—an existence manifested by no characteristic features,—a conception constituted by nothing conceivable.(12)
The same principle may be also applied to another portion of this great fundamental truth. The doctrine of the Son of God, begotten of the Father, and yet coeternal with the Father, is in nowise more or less comprehensible by human reason, than the relation between the Divine Essence and its Attributes.(13) In the order of Thought, or of Nature, the substance to which attributes belong has a logical priority to the attributes which exist in relation to it. The Attributes are attributes of a Substance. The former are conceived as the dependent and derived; the latter as the independent and original existence. Yet in the order of Time (and to the order of Time all human thought is limited), it is as impossible to conceive the Substance existing before its Attributes, as the Attributes before the Substance.(14) We cannot conceive a being originally simple, developing itself in the course of time into a complexity of attributes; for absolute simplicity cannot be conceived as containing within itself a principle of development, nor as differently related to different periods of time, so as to commence its development at any particular moment.(15) Nor yet can we conceive the attributes as existing prior to the substance; for the very conception of an attribute implies relation to a substance. Yet the third hypothesis, that of their coexistence in all time, is equally incomprehensible; for this is to merge the Absolute and Infinite in an eternal relation and difference. We cannot conceive God as first 167 existing, and then as creating His own attributes; for the creative power must then itself be created. Nor yet can we conceive the Divine Essence as constituted by the eternal coexistence of attributes; for then we have many Infinites, with no bond of unity between them. The mystery of the Many and the One, which has baffled philosophy ever since philosophy began, meets it here, as everywhere, with its eternal riddle. Reason gains nothing by repudiating Revelation; for the mystery of Revelation is the mystery of Reason also.
I should not for an instant dream of adducing this metaphysical parallel as offering the slightest approach to a proof of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in Unity. What it really illustrates is, not God’s Nature, but man’s ignorance. Without an Absolute Knowing there can be no comprehension of Absolute Being.(16) The position of human reason, with regard to the ideas of the Absolute and the Infinite, is such as equally to exclude the Dogmatism which would demonstrate Christian Doctrine from philosophical premises, and the Rationalism which rejects it on the ground of philosophical difficulties, as well as that monstrous combination of both, which distorts it in pretending to systematize it. The Infinite is known to human reason, merely as the negation of the Finite: we know what it is not; and that is all. The conviction, that an Infinite Being exists, seems forced upon us by the manifest incompleteness of our finite knowledge; but we have no rational means whatever of determining what is the nature of that Being.(17) The mind is thus perfectly blank with regard to any speculative representation of the Divine Essence; and for that very reason, Philosophy is not entitled, on internal evidence, to accept any, or to reject any. The only question which we are reasonably at liberty to ask in this matter, relates to the 168 evidences of the Revelation as a fact. If there is sufficient evidence, on other grounds, to show that the Scripture, in which this doctrine is contained, is a Revelation from God, the doctrine itself must be unconditionally received, not as reasonable, nor as unreasonable, but as scriptural. If there is not such evidence, the doctrine itself will lack its proper support; but the Reason which rejects it is utterly incompetent to substitute any other representation in its place.
Let us pass on to the second great doctrine of the Catholic Faith,—that which asserts the union of two Natures in the Person of Christ. “The right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man: God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance of His Mother, born in the world.”(18)
Our former parallel was drawn from the impossibility of conceiving, in any form, a relation between the Infinite and the Infinite. Our present parallel may be found in the equal impossibility of conceiving, by the natural reason, a relation between the Infinite and the Finite;—an impossibility equally insurmountable, whether the two natures are conceived as existing in one Being, or in divers. Let us attempt, if we can, to conceive, at any moment of time, a finite world coming into existence by the fiat of an Infinite Creator. Can we conceive that the amount of existence is thereby increased,—that the Infinite and the Finite together contain more reality than formerly existed in the Infinite alone? The supposition annihilates itself; for it represents Infinite Existence as capable of becoming greater still. But, on the other hand, can we have recourse to the opposite alternative, and conceive the Creator as evolving the world out of His own Essence; the amount of Being remaining as before, yet the Infinite and the Finite both 169 existing? This supposition also annihilates itself; for if the Infinite suffer diminution by that portion of it, which becomes the Finite, it is infinite no longer; and if it suffers no diminution, the two together are but equal to the Infinite alone, and the Finite is reduced to absolute nonentity.(19) In any mode whatever of human thought, the coexistence of the Infinite and the Finite is inconceivable; and yet the non-existence of either is, by the same laws of consciousness, equally inconceivable. If Reason is to be the supreme Judge of Divine Truths, it will not be sufficient to follow its guidance up to a certain point, and to stop when it is inconvenient to proceed further. There is no logical break in the chain of consequences, from Socinianism to Pantheism, and from Pantheism to Atheism, and from Atheism to Pyrrhonism; and Pyrrhonism is but the suicide of Reason itself. “Nature,” says Pascal, “confounds the Pyrrhonists, and reason confounds the Dogmatists. What then becomes of man, if he seeks to discover his true condition by his natural reason? He cannot avoid one of these sects, and he cannot subsist in either.”(20)
Let Religion begin where it will, it must begin with that which is above Reason. What then do we gain by that parsimony of belief, which strives to deal out the Infinite in infinitesimal fragments, and to erect the largest possible superstructure of deduction upon the smallest possible foundation of faith? We gain just this: that we forsake an incomprehensible doctrine, which rests upon the word of God, for one equally incomprehensible, which rests upon the word of man. Religion, to be a relation between God and man at all, must rest on a belief in the Infinite, and also on a belief in the Finite; for if we deny the first, there is no God; and if we deny the second, there is no Man. But the coexistence of the Infinite and the 170 Finite, in any manner whatever, is inconceivable by reason; and the only ground that can be taken for accepting one representation of it rather than another, is that one is revealed, and another is not revealed. We may seek as we will for a “Religion within the limits of the bare Reason;” and we shall not find it; simply because no such thing exists; and if we dream for a moment that it does exist, it is only because we are unable or unwilling to pursue reason to its final consequences. But if we do not, others will; and the system which we have raised on the shifting basis of our arbitrary resting-place, waits only till the wind of controversy blows against it, and the flood of unbelief descends upon it, to manifest itself as the work of the “foolish man which built his house upon the sand.”7676 St. Matthew vii. 26.
Having thus endeavored to exhibit the limits of human reason in relation to those doctrines of Holy Scripture which reveal to us the nature of God, I shall next attempt briefly to apply the same argument to those representations which more directly declare His relation to the world.
The course of Divine Providence, in the government of the world, is represented in Scripture under the twofold aspect of General Law and Special Interposition. Not only is God the Author of the universe, and of those regular laws by which the periodical recurrence of its natural phenomena is determined;7777 Genesis i. 14; viii. 22; Job xxxviii. xxxix; Psalm xix 1-6; lxxiv. 17; civ. 5-31; cxxxv.7; cxlviii. 6. but He is also exhibited as standing in a special relation to mankind; as the direct cause of events by which their temporal or spiritual welfare is affected: as accessible to the prayers of His servants; as to be praised for His special mercies towards 171 each of us in particular.7878 Psalm lxv. 2; cli. 17,18; clii. 1,3; cxliii. 1, 2; cxlv. 19. But this scriptural representation has been discovered by Philosophy to be irrational. God is unchangeable; and therefore He cannot be moved by man’s entreaty. He is infinitely wise and good; and therefore He ought not to deviate from the perfection of His Eternal Counsels. “The religious man,” says a writer of the present day, “who believes that all events, mental as well as physical, are preordered and arranged according to the decrees of infinite wisdom, and the philosopher, who knows that, by the wise and eternal laws of the universe, cause and effect are indissolubly chained together, and that one follows the other in inevitable succession,—equally feel that this ordination—this chain—cannot be changeable at the cry of man. . . . If the purposes of God were not wise, they would not be formed;—if wise, they cannot be changed, for then they would become unwise. . . . The devout philosopher, trained to the investigation of universal system,—the serene astronomer, fresh from the study of the changeless laws which govern innumerable worlds,—shrinks from the monstrous irrationality of asking the great Architect and Governor of all to work a miracle in his behalf,—to interfere, for the sake of his convenience or his plans, with the sublime order conceived by the Ancient of Days in the far Eternity of the Past; for what is a special providence but an interference with established laws? and what is such interference but a miracle?”(21)
Now here, as in the objections previously noticed, the rationalist mistakes a general difficulty of all human thought for a special difficulty of Christian belief. The really insoluble problem is, how to conceive God as acting at all; not how to conceive Him as acting in this way, rather 172 than in that. The creation of the world at any period of time;—the establishment, at any moment, of immutable laws for the future government of that world;—this is the real mystery which reason is unable to fathom, this is the representation which seems to contradict our conceptions of the Divine Perfection. To that pretentious perversion of the finite which philosophy dignifies with the name of the Infinite, it is a contradiction to suppose that any change can take place at any moment;—that any thing can begin to exist, which was not from all eternity. To conceive the Infinite Creator, at any moment of time, calling into existence a finite world, is, in the human point of view, to suppose an imperfection, either before the act, or after it. It is to suppose the development of a power hitherto unexercised, or the limiting to a determinate act that which was before general and indeterminate.
May we not then repeat our author’s objection in another form? How can a Being of Infinite Wisdom and Goodness, without an act of self-deterioration, change the laws which have governed His own solitary existence in the far Eternity when the world was not? Or rather, may we not ask what these very phrases of “changeless laws” and “far Eternity” really mean? Do they not represent God’s existence as manifested under the conditions of duration and succession,—conditions which necessarily involve the conception of the imperfect and the finite? They have not emancipated the Deity from the law of Time: they have only placed Him in a different relation to it. They have merely substituted, for the revealed representation of the God who from time to time vouchsafes His aid to the needs of His creatures, the rationalizing representation of the God who, throughout all time, steadfastly refuses to do so.(22)173
If, then, the condition of Time is inseparable from all human conceptions of the Divine Nature, what advantage do we gain, even in philosophy, by substituting the supposition of immutable order in time for that of special interposition in time? Both of these representations are doubtless speculatively imperfect: both depict the Infinite God under finite symbols. But for the regulative purposes of human conduct in this life, each is equally necessary: and who may dare, from the depths of his own ignorance, to say that each may not have its prototype in the ineffable Being of God?(23) We are sometimes told that it gives us a more elevated idea of the Divine Wisdom and Power, to regard the Creator as having finished His work once for all, and then abandoned it to its own unerring laws, than to represent Him as interfering, from time to time, by the way of direct personal superintendence;—just as it implies higher mechanical skill to make an engine which shall go on perpetually by its own motion, than one which requires to be continually regulated by the hand of its maker.(24) This ingenious simile fails only in the important particular, that both its terms are utterly unlike the objects which they profess to represent. The world is not a machine; and God is not a mechanic. The world is not a machine; for it consists, not merely of wheels of brass, and springs of steel, and the fixed properties of inanimate matter; but of living and intelligent and free-acting persons, capable of personal relations to a living and intelligent and free-acting Ruler. And God is not a mechanic; for the mechanic is separated from his machine by the whole diameter of being; as mind, giving birth to material results; as the conscious workman, who meets with no reciprocal consciousness in his work. It may be a higher evidence of mechanical skill, to abandon brute 174 matter once for all to its own laws; but to take this as the analogy of God’s dealings with His living creatures—as well tell us that the highest image of parental love and forethought is that of the ostrich, “which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in dust.”7979 Job xxxix. 14. (25)
But if such conclusions are not justified by our a priori knowledge of the Divine nature, are they borne out empirically by the actual constitution of the world? Is there any truth in the assertion, so often put forth as an undeniable discovery of modern science, “that cause and effect are indissolubly chained together, and that one follows the other in inevitable succession?” There is just that amount of half-truth which makes an error dangerous; and there is no more. Experience is of two kinds, and Philosophy is of two kinds;—that of the world of matter, and that of the world of mind,—that of physical succession, and that of moral action. In the material world, if it be true that the researches of science tend towards (though who can say that they will ever reach?) the establishment of a system of fixed and orderly recurrence; in the mental world, we are no less confronted, at every instant, by the presence of contingency and free will.(26) In the one we are conscious of a chain of phenomenal effects; in the other of self, as an acting and originating cause. Nay, the very conception of the immutability of the law of cause and effect, is not so much derived from the positive evidence of the former, as from the negative evidence of the latter. We believe the succession to be necessary, because nothing but mind can be conceived as interfering with the successions of matter; and, where mind is excluded, we are unable to imagine contingence.(27) But what right has this so-called philosophy 175 to build a theory of the universe on material principles alone, and to neglect what experience daily and. hourly forces upon our notice,—the perpetual interchange of the relations of matter and mind? In passing from the material to the moral world, we pass at once from the phenomenal to the real; from the successive to the continuous; from the many to the one; from an endless chain of mutual dependence to an originating and self-determining source of power. That mysterious, yet unquestionable presence of Will;—that agent, uncompelled, yet not uninfluenced, whose continuous existence and productive energy are summoned up in the word Myself;—that perpetual struggle of good with evil;—those warnings and promptings of a Spirit, striving with our spirit, commanding, yet not compelling; acting upon us, yet leaving us free to act for ourselves;—that twofold consciousness of infirmity and strength in the hour of temptation;—that grand ideal of what we ought to be, so little, alas! to be gathered from the observation of what we are;—that overwhelming conviction of Sin in the sight of One higher and holier than we;—that irresistible impulse to Prayer, which bids us pour out our sorrows and make our wants known to One who hears and will answer us; -that indefinable yet inextinguishable consciousness of a direct intercourse and communion of man with God, of God’s influence upon man, yea, and (with reverence be it spoken) of man’s influence upon God:—these are facts of experience, to the full as real and as certain as the laws of p1lnetary motions and chemical affinities;—facts which Philosophy is bound to take into account, or to stand convicted as shallow and one-sided;—facts which can deceive us, only if our whole Consciousness is a liar, and the boasted voice of Reason itself but an echo of the universal lie.176
Even within the domain of Physical Science, however much analogy may lead us to conjecture the universal prevalence of law and orderly sequence, it has been acutely remarked, that the phenomena which are most immediately important to the life and welfare of man, are precisely those which he never has been, and probably never will be, able to reduce to a scientific calculation.(28) The astronomer, who can predict the exact position of a planet in the heavens a thousand years hence, knows not what may be his own state of health to-morrow, nor how the wind which blows upon him will vary from day to day. May we not be permitted to conclude, with a distinguished Christian philosopher of the present day, that there is a Divine Purpose in this arrangement of nature; that, while enough is displayed to stimulate the intellectual and practical energies of man, enough is still concealed to make him feel his dependence upon God?(29)
For man’s training in this life, the conceptions of General Law and of Special Providence are both equally necessary; the one, that he may labor for God’s blessings, and the other, that he may pray for them. Ile sows, and reaps, and gathers in his produce, to meet the different seasons, as they roll their unchanging course: he acknowledges also that “neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.”8080 1 Corinthians iii. 7. He labors in the moral training of himself and others, in obedience to the general laws of means and ends, of motives and influences; while he asks, at the same time, for wisdom from above to guide his course aright, and for grace to enable him to follow that guidance. Necessary alike during this our state of trial, it may be that both conceptions alike are but shadows of 177 some higher truth, in which their apparent oppositions are merged in one harmonious whole. But when we attempt, from our limited point of view, to destroy the one, in order to establish the other more surely, we overlook the fact that our conception of General Law is to the full as human as that of Special Interposition;—that we are not really thereby acquiring a truer knowledge of the hidden things of God, but are measuring Him by a standard derived from the limited representations of man.(30)
Subordinate to the Conception of Special Providence, and subject to the same laws of thought in its application, is that of Miraculous Agency. I am not now going to waste an additional argument in answer to that shallowest and crudest of all the assumptions of unbelief, which dictatorially pronounces that Miracles are impossible;—an assumption which is repudiated by the more philosophical among the leaders of Rationalism itself;(31) and which implies, that he who maintains it has such a perfect and intimate acquaintance with the Divine Nature and Purposes, as to warrant him in asserting that God cannot or will not depart from the ordinary course of His Providence on any occasion whatever. If, as I have endeavored to show, the doctrine of Divine Interposition is not in itself more opposed to reason than that of General Law; and if the asserted immutability of the laws of nature is, at the utmost, tenable only on the supposition that material nature alone is spoken of,—we are not warranted, on any ground, whether of deduction from principles or of induction from experience, in denying the possible suspension of the Laws of Matter by the will of the Divine Mind. But the question on which it may still be desirable to say a few words, before concluding this portion of my argument, is one which is disputed, not necessarily between the believer and the unbeliever, but 178 often between believers equally sincere and equally pious, differing only in their modes of representing to their own minds the facts and doctrines which both accept. Granting, that is to say, that variations from the established sequence of physical phenomena may take place, and have taken place, as Scripture bears witness;—are such variations to be represented as departures from or suspensions of natural law; or rather, as themselves the result of some higher law to us unknown, and as miraculous only from the point of view of our present ignorance?(32)
Which of these representations, or whether either of them, is the true one, when such occurrences are considered in their relation to the Absolute Nature of God, our ignorance of that Nature forbids us to determine. Speculatively, to human understanding, it appears as little consistent with the nature of the Absolute and Infinite, to be subject to universal law, as it is to act at particular moments. But as a regulative truth, adapted to the religious wants of man’s constitution, the more natural representation, that of a departure from the general law, seems to be also the more accurate. We are liable, in considering this question, to confound together two distinct notions under the equivocal name of Law. The first is a positive notion, derived from the observation of facts, and founded, with various modifications, upon the general idea of the periodical recurrence of phenomena. The other is a merely negative notion, deduced from a supposed apprehension of the Divine Nature, and professing to be based on the idea of the eternal Purposes of God. Of the former, the ideas of succession and repetition form an essential part. To the latter, the idea of Time, in any form, has no legitimate application; and it is thus placed beyond the sphere of human thought. Now, when we speak of a Miracle as the possible result of some 179 higher law, do we employ the term law in the former sense, or in the latter? do we mean, a law which actually exists in the knowledge of God; or one which, in the progress of science, may come to the knowledge of man? -one which might be discovered by a better acquaintance with the Divine Counsels, or one which might be inferred from a larger experience of natural phenomena? If we mean the former, we do not know that a more perfect acquaintance with the Divine Counsels, implying, as it does, the elevation of our faculties to a superhuman level, might not abolish the conception of Law altogether. If we mean the latter, we assume that which no experience warrants us in assuming; we endanger the religious significance and value of the miracle, only for the sake of removing God a few degrees further back from that chain of phenomena which is admitted ultimately to depend upon Him. A miracle, in one sense, need not be necessarily a violation of the laws of nature. God may make use of natural instruments, acting after their kind; as man himself, within his own sphere, does in the production of artificial combinations. The great question, however, still remains: Has God ever, for religious purposes, exhibited phenomena in certain relations, which the observed course of nature, and the artistic skill of man, are unable to bring about, or to account for?
I have thus far endeavored to apply the principle of the Limits of Religious Thought to some of these representations which are usually objected to by the Rationalist, as in apparent opposition to the Speculative Reason of Man. In my next Lecture, I shall attempt to pursue the same argument, in relation to those doctrines which are sometimes regarded as repugnant to man’s Moral Reason. The lesson to be derived from our present inquiry may be given in the pregnant sentence of a great philosopher, but recently taken 180 from us: “No difficulty emerges in Theology, which had not previously emerged in Philosophy.”(33) The intellectual stumblingblocks, which men find in the doctrines of Revelation, are not in consequence of any improbability or error peculiar to the things revealed; but are such as the thinker brings with him to the examination of the question;—such as meet him on every side, whether he thinks with or against the testimony of Scripture; being inherent in the constitution and laws of the Human Mind itself. But must we therefore acquiesce in the melancholy conclusion, that self-contradiction is the law of our intellectual being;—that the light of Reason, which is God’s gift, no less than Revelation, is a delusive light, which we follow to our own deception? Far from it: the examination of the Limits of Thought leads to a conclusion the very opposite to this. Reason does not deceive us, if we will only read her witness aright; and Reason herself gives us warning, when we are in danger of reading it wrong. The light that is within us is not darkness; only it cannot illuminate that which is beyond the sphere of its rays. The self-contradictions, into which we inevitably fall, when we attempt certain courses of speculation, are the beacons placed by the hand of God in the mind of man, to warn us that we are deviating from the track that He designs us to pursue; that we are striving to pass the barriers which He has planted around us. The flaming sword turns every way against those who strive, in the strength of their own reason, to force their passage to the tree of life. Within her own province, and among her own objects, let Reason go forth, conquering and to conquer. The finite objects, which she can clearly and distinctly conceive, are her lawful empire and her true glory. The countless phenomena of the visible world; the unseen things which lie in the depths of the human soul;—these are given 181 into her hand; and over them she may reign in unquestioned dominion. But when she strives to approach too near to the hidden mysteries of the Infinite;—when, not content with beholding afar off the partial and relative manifestations of God’s presence, she would “turn aside and see this great sight,” and know why God hath revealed Himself thus;—the voice of the Lord Himself is heard, as it were, speaking in warning from the midst: “Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”8181 Exodus iii. 5.182
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