Edward Hitchcock.

The religion of geology and its connected sciences online

. (page 37 of 39)
Online LibraryEdward HitchcockThe religion of geology and its connected sciences → online text (page 37 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Geology is a branch of knowledge, which, a few years ago, would have been
at once selected as not only destitute of any important religious
applications, but as of a positively injurious tendency; and even now,
such is the feeling probably of a majority of the religious world. True,
it touches religion, natural and revealed, at many points; but so novel
and startling are its conclusions, that they are thought to unsettle more
minds than they confirm. They fall in with many of the views of
scepticism, and especially confirm its doubts concerning the age of the
world, and compel the religious man to give up long-cherished opinions
upon this point, and on other collateral subjects. But we have gone into a
careful examination of the religious applications of this science, and
have we not found it most fertile in its illustrations both of natural and
revealed religion? Let us just recapitulate the conclusions at which we
have arrived.

In the first place, geology furnishes important illustrations of revealed
religion. It confirms the statement that the present continents of our
globe were once, and for an indefinite time, beneath the ocean, and that
they were subsequently lifted above the waters by internal agencies. It
agrees with revelation in making water and heat the two great agents of
geological change upon and within the earth, and that the work of
creation, after the production of matter, was progressive. It shows us
equally with revelation, that the existing races of animals and plants on
the globe were created at a comparatively recent epoch, and that man
commenced his existence not more than six thousand years ago. It shows us,
also, that the earth contains within itself the volcanic agency necessary
for its future destruction by combustion, as described in the Bible.

But, perhaps, the most important illustration of revealed truth, which
geology affords, is the light which it casts upon certain passages of the
Bible relating to the creation. As those texts which represent the earth
as immovable, and the heavenly bodies as moving diurnally around it, were
not rightly understood, until astronomy had discovered the true theory of
the solar system, so those passages which relate to the period of the
creation of the universe, the introduction of death into the world, and
the extent and operation of the deluge, were misinterpreted till geology
disclosed their true meaning. It is still customary, indeed, to speak of
geology and revelation as in collision with each other on these subjects;
but this is a false view of the case. Revelation is illustrated, not
opposed, by geology. Who thinks, at this day, of any discrepancy between
astronomy and revelation? And yet, two hundred years ago, the evidence of
such discrepancy was far more striking than any which can now be offered
to show geology at variance with the Scriptures. We ought, therefore, to
look upon that science as illustrating, instead of opposing, the

Having once admitted the conclusions of geology as to the great age of the
world, and a flood of light is shed upon some of the most difficult points
both of natural and revealed religion. It shows the occurrence of numerous
changes on the globe which nothing but the power of God could have
produced, and which in fact were most striking and stupendous miracles.
Hence the arguments which have so long been employed to show that the
world is eternal are rendered nugatory; for if we can point to epochs when
entire races of animals and plants began to exist on the globe, we prove
the agency of a Deity quite as strikingly as if we could show the moment
when the matter of the world was summoned into existence out of nothing.
In the same manner, also, we silence the argument against the giving of a
revelation from heaven, as well as the miracles by which it is
substantiated, on the ground that we have no example of a special
interference with the established course of nature. Here we have
interpositions long anterior to man's existence, as well as by his
creation, which take away all improbability from those which are implied
in a revelation. We hence likewise establish the doctrine of a special
providence over the world - a doctrine proved with great difficulty by any
other reasoning of natural theology.

Still more abundant is the evidence derived from geology of the divine
benevolence. And this evidence comes mostly from the operations and final
effect of the most desolating agencies, heretofore regarded as a proof of
malevolence, or, at least, of vindictive justice; and we may reasonably
infer, that could we look through the whole system of divine government,
we should find that all evil is only a necessary means of the greatest

No one can examine existing nature without being convinced that all its
parts and operations belong to one great system. Geology makes other
economies of wide extent to pass before us, opening a vista indefinitely
backward into the hoary past; and it is gratifying to witness that same
unity of design pervading all preceding periods of the world's history,
linking the whole into one mighty scheme, worthy its infinite Contriver.

How much, also, does this science enlarge our conceptions of the plans and
operations of Jehovah! We had been accustomed to limit our views of the
creative agency of God to the few thousand years of man's existence, and
to anticipate the destruction of the material universe in a few thousand
years more. But geology makes the period of man's existence on the globe
only one short link of a chain of revolutions which preceded his
existence, and which reaches forward immeasurably far into the future. We
see the same matter in the hands of infinite wisdom, and by means of the
great conservative principle of chemical change, passing through a
multitude of stupendous revolutions, sustaining countless and varied forms
of organic life, and presenting an almost illimitable panorama of the
plans of an infinite God.

If such is the fruit which geology pours into the lap of religion, how
misunderstood have been its principles! In many a mind there is still an
anxious fear lest its discoveries should prove unfavorable to religion;
and they would feel greatly relieved could they only be assured that no
influence injurious to piety would emanate from that science. But we can
give them far more than this assurance. We can draw from this science more
to illustrate and confirm religion than from any other; and we believe
that the history of the past justifies the general conclusion, that those
sciences whose early developments excited most apprehensions of a
collision with religion, have ultimately furnished the most abundant
illustrations of its principles.

Another science regarded as barren of religious applications, and even as
sometimes positively injurious, is mathematics. Its principles are,
indeed, of so abstruse a nature, that it is not easy to frame out of them
a religious argument that is capable of popular illustration. But, in
fact, mathematical laws form the basis of nearly all the operations of
nature. They constitute, as it were, the very framework of the material
world. When we look up to the heavenly bodies, we see them directed and
controlled, along with the earth, by those laws, which vary not, by an
iota, from century to century. The infinity of changes, which are going on
in the constitution of bodies upon and within the earth, chemistry
reduces to mathematical laws. So far as organic operations depend upon
chemical changes, - and this is very far, - mathematics is the controlling
power. I will not say, that life and intellect are in a strict sense under
the guidance of mathematics; and yet I doubt not that their operations are
limited and controlled by its principles. Confident am I that atmospheric
changes, apparently quite as anomalous and irregular as the movements of
the vital and intellectual principles, rest on mathematics as certainly as
do the revolutions of the heavenly bodies.

It seems, then, that this science forms the very foundation of all
arguments for Theism, from the arrangements and operations of the material
universe. We do, indeed, neglect the foundation, and point only to the
superstructure, when we state these arguments. But suppose mathematical
laws to be at once struck from existence, and what a hideous chaos would
the universe present! What then would become of the marks of design and
unity in nature, and of the Theist's argument for the being of a God?

But mathematical principles furnish several interesting illustrations of
truth, of no small importance. In a former lecture, we have seen how the
doctrine of miracles stands forth completely vindicated by an appeal to
mathematical laws; how, in fact, they might have formed a part of the
original plan of the universe, when first it was conceived in the divine
mind, and how their occurrence may be as much the result of a fixed law as
the most common operations of nature; so that in this way all
improbability of their occurrence, on the ground that nature is constant,
is removed. These views are illustrated in that singular, yet original
work of Professor Babbage, called the "Ninth Bridgewater Treatise," a work
written, it is true, in part, under the influence of exasperated feelings,
but yet full of original and ingenious suggestions. But these views have
been so fully presented in the Lecture on Special and Miraculous
Providence, and in that upon the Telegraphic System of the Universe, that
they need not here be repeated.

Mathematics, also, aids our conceptions of truths of religion difficult or
impossible, from their nature, of being understood by finite beings. All
the attributes of the Deity, being infinite, are of this description. But
it seems to me that the contemplation of a mathematical series, either
increasing or decreasing, gives us the strongest apprehension of infinity
which we can attain. It puts into our hands a thread by which we can find
our way, as far as our powers will carry us, towards infinity. True, after
we have followed the series till the mind stops exhausted, we are no
nearer infinity than when we started; yet we do get most deeply impressed
with the unfathomableness of the abyss that separates the finite from the

To many minds all statements of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity
appear so absurd and contradictory as to be incapable of belief. Yet let
it be stated to a man, for the first time, that two lines may approach
each other forever without meeting, and it must appear equally absurd. But
after you have demonstrated to him the properties of the hyperbola and its
asymptote, the apparent absurdity vanishes. So, when the theologian has
stated, that by the divine unity he means only a numerical unity, - in
other words, that there is but one Supreme Being, and that the three
persons of the Godhead are one in this sense, and three only in those
respects not inconsistent with this unity, - every philosophical mind,
whether it admits that the Scriptures teach this doctrine or not, must see
that there is no absurdity or contradiction in it. And thus it may happen,
that the solution of a man's difficulties on this subject may come from a
proposition of conic sections, as in fact we know to have been the case.

It is said, however, that mathematicians have been unusually prone to
scepticism concerning religious truth. If it be so, it probably originates
from the absurd attempt to apply mathematical reasoning to moral subjects;
or, rather, the devotees of this science often become so attached to its
demonstrations, that they will not admit any evidence of a less certain
character. They do not realize the total difference between moral and
mathematical reasonings, and absurdly endeavor to stretch religion on the
Procrustean bed of mathematics. No wonder they become sceptics. But the
fault is in themselves, not in this science, whose natural tendencies,
upon a pure and exalted mind, are favorable to religion, because its
principles illustrate religion.

There are several other sciences, whose earlier developments were supposed
for a time to be unfavorable to religion; and hence has originated a
ground of apprehension respecting science generally. When the Copernican
system of astronomy was introduced, it was thought impossible ever to
reconcile it to the plain declarations of Scripture; and hence at least
one venerable astronomer was obliged to recant that system upon his knees.
Similar fears of collision between science and revelation were excited
when chemistry announced that the main part of the earth has already been
oxidized, and, therefore, could not hereafter be literally burnt. Because
some physiologists have been materialists, it has been inferred that
physiology was favorable to materialism. But it is now found that they
were materialists in spite of physiology, rather than from a correct
interpretation of its facts.

Strong apprehensions have also been excited respecting phrenology and
mesmerism. And, indeed, in their present aspect, these sciences are
probably made to exert a more unfriendly influence upon vital religion
than any other. Those who profess to understand and teach them have been,
for the most part, decided opponents of special providence and special
grace, and many of them materialists. But this is not because there are
any special grounds for such opinions in phrenology or mesmerism. The
latter branch, indeed, affords such decided proofs of immaterialism, as to
have led several able materialists to change their views. Nor does
phrenology afford any stronger proof that law governs the natural world,
than do the other sciences. But when a man who is sceptical becomes deeply
interested in any branch of knowledge, and fancies himself to be an oracle
respecting it, he will torture its principles till they are made to give
testimony in favor of his previous sceptical views, although, in fact, the
tones are as unnatural as those of ventriloquism, and as deceptive. When
true philosophy shall at length determine what are the genuine principles
of phrenology and mesmerism, we can judge of their bearing upon religion;
but the history of other sciences shows us that we need have no fears of
any collision, when the whole subject is brought fairly into the daylight.

Upon the whole, every part of science, which has been supposed, by the
fears of friends or malice of foes, to conflict with religion, has been
found, at length, when fully understood, to be in perfect harmony with its
principles, and even to illustrate them. It is high time, therefore, for
the friends of religion to cease fearing any injury to the cause of
religion from science; and high time, also, for the enemies of religion to
cease expecting any such collision.

In conclusion of this argument, we may safely challenge any one to point
out a single principle of science which does not in some way illustrate
the perfections of the Deity; and if he cannot, scientific truth may be
appropriately called religious truth, especially since such illustrations
are the highest use to which science can be applied. It is no drawback on
the argument because so few make this use of science, nor because some
attempt to array science against religion; for this only shows how men may
neglect the most important use to which science can be applied, or how
they can pervert the richest gifts.

I derive a second argument in support of the general position, that
scientific truth is religious truth, from the fact that _it will survive
the present world, and its examination become a part of the employments
and enjoyments of heaven_.

The Scriptures are, indeed, sparing in their details of the specific
employments of the heavenly world, except so far as worship and praise are
concerned. But that worship will undoubtedly be the spontaneous impulse of
the heart, (as it is in this world when acceptable,) in view of some
manifestations of the divine character. Accordingly, the first sentence of
the future song of Moses and the Lamb, as the saints stand with the harps
of God upon the sea of glass, is, _Great and marvellous are thy works,
Lord God Almighty._ The works of God, then, will be studied in the future
world; and what is that but the study of the sciences? It is, indeed, said
by the apostle, that _whether there be tongues, they shall cease_, [that
is, in a future world;] _whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish
away_; and hence it has sometimes been inferred that all the knowledge
which we acquire in this world will disappear with this world. But this
cannot be the meaning of the passage, for in a variety of places the Bible
represents both the righteous and wicked in another world as conscious of
what took place on earth; and, unless the nature of the mind be changed
at death, it is not possible to conceive that the knowledge we acquire
here should be lost. This passage may refer to one of those gifts of
inspiration peculiar to apostolic times, called by the sacred writer _the
word of knowledge_. But more probably he meant to teach that, so much
brighter and clearer will be the disclosures of another world, that most
of our present knowledge will be eclipsed and forgotten. But this does not
imply that our future knowledge will be essentially different in nature
from that which we acquire on earth. The grand difference is, that now _we
see through a glass darkly, but then face to face_.

We can, also, see why some branches of science cultivated on earth should
be very much modified in a future world. There are several, for instance,
dependent mainly upon the present organic constitution of nature; and of
such branches only the general principles can survive the destruction of
the existing framework of animals and plants. Take, for an example,
anatomy and physiology. We believe, indeed, that the new earth, wherein
dwelleth righteousness, will be material, and that the bodies of men will
also be material. But even though these bodies should be organized, we
learn from the Scriptures that this organization will be very different
from our present bodies. _They_, says Christ, _who shall be accounted
worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither
marry nor are given in marriage, neither can they die any more; for they
are equal unto the angels._ Paul's vivid description of the future
spiritual body leaves the impression on the mind that it must be very
dissimilar to our present bodies. He does not attempt to define the
spiritual body, probably because we could not understand the definition,
since it would be so unlike any thing on earth. He represents it as
incorruptible, powerful, and glorious, entirely in contrast with our
present bodies, and declares that it is not flesh and blood, and that it
is not organized like our present bodies.

It seems, then, that we have no certain evidence that the future spiritual
body will be organized; and in a former lecture we have seen that it is
not necessary to suppose it endowed with organs. If not, it is obvious
that the sciences of anatomy and physiology can have no existence in a
future world, except in the memory. On the other hand, however, there are
some things in Paul's description of the future body that make it quite
probable that its organization will be much more exquisite than any thing
in existence on earth. He represents it as springing from our present
bodies as a germ from a seed; and this would seem to imply organization;
though we must not infer too much from a mere rhetorical similitude. But
he also represents the spiritual body as far transcending the natural body
in glory and in power; and, since the latter is fearfully and wonderfully
made, we know of nothing but the most exquisite organization that can give
the spiritual body such a superiority over the natural. Admitting that
such will be its structure, and, although the nomenclature of anatomy and
physiology, which is adapted to flesh and blood, shall pass away and be
forgotten, yet analogous sciences shall be substituted, based on facts and
principles far more interesting, and developing relations and harmonies
far more beautiful. It may be thought, indeed, that, so different will be
these sciences from any thing on earth, that there can be no common
principles and no link of connection. But the longer a man studies the
works of God, the more inclined will he be to regard the universe,
material and immaterial, as founded on eternal principles; as, in fact, a
transcript of the divine nature; and that all the changes in nature are
only new developments of unchanging fundamental laws, not the introduction
of new laws. Hence the philosopher would infer that in existing nature we
have the prototype of new heavens and a new earth; and although a future
condition of things may be as different from the present as the plant is
from the seed out of which it springs, still, as the seed contains the
embryo of a future plant, so the future world may, as it were, lie coiled
up in the present. If in these suggestions there is any truth, there may
be a germ in the anatomy and physiology of the present world, which shall
survive the destruction of the present economy, and unfold, in far higher
beauty and glory, in the more congenial climate of the new heavens and the
new earth. If so, the great principles of these sciences which are
acquired on earth, and which are so prolific in exhibitions of divine
skill, may not prove to be lost knowledge. They shall be recognized as
types of those far higher and richer developments of organization which
the spiritual body shall exhibit.

It may be still more difficult to show that such a science as botany will
have a place in the new earth; simply because we have no certain knowledge
of the existence of vegetation there. We can infer nothing on this subject
from the figurative representations of the new Jerusalem in Revelation,
since the drapery is all derived from this world. But, on the general
principle already stated, that the universe constitutes but one vast and
harmonious system, and all the economies upon it, past, present, and
future, are only different developments of eternal principles, this
consideration, I say, should make us hesitate before we infer the
annihilation of the vast vegetable kingdom upon the destruction of the
present economy of the world. And it does give us an aspect of extreme
barrenness and cheerlessness to think of the new earth entirely swept of
every thing analogous to the existing foliage, flowers, and fruits. We
have attempted to show, however, in another place, that the spiritual body
may be of such a nature that it might exist in a temperature so high, or
so low, as to prevent the existence of such organic natures as now exist.
But how easy for the Deity to create such natures as are adapted to
extremes of temperature as wide as we now are acquainted with; and that,
too, on the same type as existing nature; so that the new earth, while yet
an incandescent, glowing ocean, might teem with animals and plants,
organized on the same general principles as those of the present earth!
But there is another supposition. I have endeavored to show that change
ever has been, and probably ever will be, one of the grand means by which
mind is introduced to higher spheres of enjoyment; and even though the new
earth at first should be destitute of organic natures, both animal and
vegetable, they might be introduced in successive and more perfect
economies, as a means of increased happiness, especially to rational
natures. These are, indeed, only conjectures; but the balance of
probabilities seems to me to incline the mind to the belief that there may
be a botany as well as zo√ґlogy in the future world, far transcending their
prototypes on earth.

Among the things that we may be certain will pass away with the present
world is the mode of communicating our ideas by language. This the apostle
expressly declares when he says, _Whether there be tongues_, [that is,
languages,] _they shall cease._ Now, the acquisition of languages, and the
right use of language, or rhetoric and oratory, constitute a large part of
what men call learning on earth. And the question is, whether there are
any principles on which these branches of knowledge are based that will
become the elements of new and higher modes of communicating thought in a
future world. These branches are, indeed, rather to be regarded as arts
than sciences. Language is the drapery for clothing our thoughts, and,
unless we have thoughts to clothe, it becomes useless; and rhetoric and
oratory merely show us how to arrange that drapery in the most attractive

Online LibraryEdward HitchcockThe religion of geology and its connected sciences → online text (page 37 of 39)