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LECTURE 9 NOTE B.—P. 327.
THE GOSPEL AND THE VASTNESS OF CREATION.
An interesting article on the subject treated of in the Lecture is contributed to the Contemporary Review for April 1889 by the late Prof. Freeman, under the title—“Christianity and the ‘Geocentric’ System.” The article is full of suggestive and acute remarks. Prof. Freeman states the objection in its full strength. “It is unreasonable, it is urged, to believe that such a scheme as that of Christianity, implying such awful mysteries and so tremendous a sacrifice can have been devised for the sole benefit of such an insignificant part of the universe as the earth and its inhabitants” (p. 541). He does not, however, think there is much in it. “If it is meant,” he says, “not merely as a rhetorical point, but as a serious objection, it really comes to this: we cannot believe that so much has been done for this earth as Christianity teaches, because this earth is so little; if this earth were only bigger, then we might believe it. . . . Surely nobody ever believed or disbelieved on this kind of ground. An objection of this kind is a rhetorical point, and nothing more” (p. 542). As a rhetorical .point nevertheless, he grants that it is telling, and proceeds to deal with it for what it is worth. He points out, first, how little the change from the “geocentric” view has done to alter the general tenor of our thoughts and feelings. It is not the case that the “geocentric” view led man to take an exaggerated view of his own importance. On the contrary, the sight of the starry heavens, even when hooked at with “geocentric” eyes, has always been to make one feel his littleness (Ps. viii.). “The truth is that the objection attributes to scientific theories a great deal more practical influence than really belongs to them. Whether the earth goes round the sun, or the sun goes round the earth, does not make the least practical difference to our general feelings, to our general way of looking at things. . . . We are all ‘heliocentric’ when we stop to think about it, . . . but I suspect most of us are ‘geocentric’ in practice. That is, we not only talk as if the sun really rose and set, but for all practical purposes we really think so. . . . Nobody really accepts or rejects the Christian religion or any other religion, merely through thinking whether the sun is so many thousands or millions of times 469bigger than the earth, or whether it is only the size of a cart-wheel, or at the outside, about the bigness of Peloponnesus” (p. 544) Next, he touches the question whether we have any reason to suppose that other worlds are inhabited. “ Astronomers do not even attempt to tell us for certain whether even the other members of our own system are inhabited or not. . . . I believe I am right in saying that they tell us that Mars is the only planet of our system where men like ourselves could live; that, if the other—planets are inhabited, it must be by beings of a very different nature from ours” (p. 545). But the peculiar part of his argument, developed with great ingenuity and force, is a working out of the idea that it is, after all, quite in accordance with analogy that our world should he a very small one, and yet should play a most important part in the universe. Here the analogies of his own science of history furnish him with abundant illustration. “If it should be true that our earth does hold a kind of moral place in the universe out of all proportion to its physical size, the fact will be one of exactly the same kind as the fact that so small a continent as Europe was chosen to play the foremost part in the world’s history, and that so small a part of Europe as Greece was chosen to play the foremost part in Europe” (p. 558). Incidentally, in developing this argument, he refers to the fact noted in the Lecture, that the past history of our own world takes away in large part the force of the argument from the vast empty spaces of creation. “Here both the certain facts of geology and the less certain doctrine of evolution, instead of standing in the way of the argument, give it no small help. . . . We know that our own world remained in this seemingly useless and empty state for untold ages; there is therefore at least no absurdity in supposing that other worlds, some or all of them, are in the same state still. . . . The past emptiness and uselessness of the whole planet, the abiding emptiness and seeming uselessness of large parts of it, certainly go a long way to get rid of all a priori objection to the possible emptiness and seeming uselessness of some or all of the other bodies that make up the universe “ (p. 548).
A lengthy and valuable note on the subject will likewise he found in Dorner’s History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ, vol. v. pp. 265–270. Dorner reviews, with his usual thoroughness and learning, the opinions held by others, but finds nothing to shake his confidence in the Christian view. “Concerning our planet, as thousand others we compared with a, must say that it is the Bethlehem amongst the rest, the least city amongst the thousands Judah, out of which the Lord was destined to proceed “ (p. 267). He reminds us that Steffens and Hegel, like Whewell, “regard our planetary system as the most organised spot of the universe; the earth, this concentrated spot on which the Lord appeared, as its absolute centre, which both Hegel and Becker designate the Bethlehem of worlds” (p. 269).
Ebrard likewise discusses the objection in his Christian Apologetics, i. p. 253 (Eng. trans.). Fiske, in his little book on Man’s Destiny, is another who refers to it. Chap. i. is headed “Man’s Place in 470Nature, as affected by the Copernican Theory.” He concludes—“The speculative necessity for man’s occupying the largest and most central spot in the universe is no longer felt. It is recognised as a primitive and childish notion. With our larger knowledge we see that these vast and fiery suns are after all but the Titan-like servants of the little planets which they bear with them in their flight through the abysses of space. . . . He who thus looks a little deeper into the secrets of nature than his forefathers of the sixteenth century, may well smile at the quaint conceit that man cannot be the object of God’s care unless he occupies an immovable position in the centre of the stellar universe” (pp. 16, 17).
Among the Ritschlians, the question is touched on by Ritschl, Recht. und Ver. iii. p. 580; and by Kaftan, Wahrheit, pp. 562, 563 (Eng. trans. ii. pp. 399–401).
Finally, I may refer to the beautiful treatment of the higher and more spiritual aspects of the subject by Dr. John Ker in his sermon on “The Gospel and the Magnitude of Creation” (Sermons, p. 227).
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