Goldwin Smith.

Lines of religious inquiry. An address delivered to the Unitarian club of Toronto online

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Lines of
Religious Inquiry






Lines of Religious

An Address Delivered to the Unitarian Club of






William Tyrrell & Company


Lines of Religious

An Address Delivered to the Unitarian Cluh of


By t



William Tyrrell & Company

Entered according to Act of Parliament of
Canada by Gor,nwiN Smith, in the office of the
Minister of Agriculture in the year 1904.

Lines of Religious Inquiry.

OURS is an age of great perplexity and doubt
on questions vitally affecting the highest
interests and the destiny of Man

The first condition of finding truth is that we
should honestly and fearlessly seek it. For this
we have no other instrument than our reason, for
the weakness of which we are not responsible, for
its faithful use we are. " I express myself with
caution," says Bishop Butler, " lest I should be
mistaken to vilify reason, which is indeed the only
faculty we have to judge concerning anything,
even Revelation itself, or be misunderstood to
assert that a supposed Revelation cannot be proved
false from internal characters." Noble words those
for a Prelate of the State Church. Whether a
Revelation is authentic, whether a miracle is real,
reason must be judge. If calmly, carefully, and
conscientious^ applied, it still misleads us, on its
Giver the responsibility rests. Our only path of
salvation is thorough-going loyalty to truth. If
there is a God, He is more magnanimous and
equitable than the most magnanimous and equit-


able of men. To such a Being it can matter little
whether his creatures find truth. It may matter
much to him whether they seek it.

At the same time we have need of caution.
Materialism, as well as orthodoxy, may have its
fanatics. Is not a touch of fanaticism perceptible in
such a materialist as Haeckel ? Few, probably, now
doubt the general truth of Darwin's grand dis-
covery. But some of us seem to have run, one
might almost say, Evolution mad. We are told in
effect that Deity itself is subject to the law of evo-
lution, and has conformed to it in its revelation of
itself to mankind, going through a necessary stage
of primitive and barbarous morality before it could
come to the era of moral light. Of the general
truth of Evolution, I repeat, there can be no doubt.
But the discovery is new, and its exact bounds may
not yet have been fixed. There may yet be room
for belief in a directive and creative power, as Lord
Kelvin and other great men of science hold. Evolu-
tion, it appears, works by the improvement through
environment and circumstance of accidental varia-
tions. An evolutionist was asked how many aeons
it would probably take to evolve by this process
a bird which should build a nest in anticipation of
laying an egg. He was not at once ready with a
reply. At last he said that some allowance must
be made for the habit of imitation. This would in
the first place imply the previous existence of a
thing to be imitated. In the second place, to evolve


the habit of imitation, another vast series of aeons
would apparently be required.

Reverence, again, is needful probably in seeking
truth, certainly in imparting it, especially to un-
willing minds. I once heard Ingersoll. His bril-
liancy was unquestionable, and his fearlessness in
attacking superstition commanded respect. But
his travesty of Christianity was unfair and repul-
sive even to the sober free thinker, much more to
all who still clung to their ancestral faith. In an
anti-clerical book store in Paris I found a comic
Life of Christ, the effect of which would be to drive
the reader who had not parted with reverence back
into the arms of any decent superstition. In the
day of Voltaire, when intolerance was still mighty
and murderous, satire and mockery might be the
only safe and effective missionaries of free thought.
Now all is changed. Thought and utterance are
free, or have nothing worse to encounter than
prejudice and hard words. In my youth geology
was nervously striving to accommodate itself to
Genesis. Now it is Genesis that is striving to
accommodate itself to geology.

We who are met here this evening have
probably all of us fully and frankly accepted the
revelations both of science and criticism. We have
bidden farewell to the supernatural, the mythical,
the dogmatic. If we still follow Jesus of Nazareth
it is because His words are true, and being true are
bread of moral life. If we believe in His divinity,

it is because spiritual perfection is divine. At the
same time we do not forget that all this belief in
the supernatural, this myth, this dogma, these
Athanasian Creeds, the decrees of polemical coun-
cils and ecclesiastical incrustations of all kinds
have been accepted and cherished by men of the
highest and most beneficent character, not only in
the pulpit or the cloister, but in all the walks of
life. When criticism has done all that it can do,
the historic fact remains that belief in the father-
hood of God and the brotherhood of man, which is
the real essence of Christianity, has for eighteen
centuries been the soul of moral civilization.
Overlaid and compromised as it has been by the
sinister union of the Church with the State, and
by the' crimes of Emperors, Popes, Catholic Kings,
Tudor despots, and intolerant Presbyteries, dis-
graced as it has been by fanaticism and imposture,
Christianity, where it has had fair play, seems to
have proved itself by its fruits to be a true solution
of the ethical problem of humanity.

What is religion itself, and what does it indicate ?
It seems to be, if not absolutely universal, common
to all except the very lowest races, which may be
degenerate, and in that sense apparently congen-
ital. It is also, so far as can be discerned, peculiar
to the nature of man. Far-fetched, surely, is the
idea that its rudiment is found in the feeling of a dog
toward its master. Various origins of religion
have been devised. A general and natural opinion

is that it was kindled in the heart of man by the
sight of the great objects and the influence of the
great powers of nature. Some have held it to be
the offspring of dreams of departed chiefs. Feel-
ings of admiration and awe are kindled not only in
the savage but in the civilized man by the sight of
the sun in his glory, and of the star-lit night, by
the solemn silence of the primeval forest, by the
peal of the thunder and the voice of the storm.
But the question remains whether the religious
sentiment is created by these influences, or whether
being in man it is evoked by them, and fixes on
them as material objects of its worship. At all
events, the religious sentiment exists and manifests
itself. It appears to be tenacious of life, for even
a philosopher who discards belief in a personal
deity cherishes for the power which moves the
universe a sentiment different from any produced
by the notion of mere power.

Man, Darwin has proved, was evolved from a
lower animal type; it may be from the worm.
Still, having been evolved, he is not a worm but
man. Did we not know before that he had been de-
veloped out of a senseless embryo? Was not the
old belief that he had been made out of the dust ?
We are what we are, whatever our genesis may
have been.

There seem to be in our nature things for which
material evolution will not account; things which
are not of the earth or of the earth-worm, and

which therefore we may distinguish as spiritual
until a material account of them appears.

There is our will ; I do not say free will, be-
cause that term involves us at once in mazes of
logomachy; but will, i.e. , power of choice. What
is the exact relation of will to antecedent and
environment is a problem which probably defies
solution. That we do will ; that we have liberty of
choice ; that our actions do not follow antecedents
in merely material sequence like a ball propelled
by impact, is a fact of consciousness assumed in all
our judgments on our own actions and on those of
others. If our nature lies to us in this, in what
can its evidence be trusted? Of course, if the
Necessarian chooses to say that all our actions
were pre-ordained in the cosmogonic nebula he
cannot be gainsaid. Necessarianism seems to me
nothing more than a puzzle created by the difficulty
of expressing the exact relation of the antecedents
to the volition. Achilles does overtake the
tortoise, in spite of the sophistical demonstration to
the contrary. In spite of the perplexing demon-
stration of Jonathan Edwards, we do will.

Then there is moral aspiration. The elite of the
race at all events aspire to the formation of a char-
acter such as shall fulfil a moral ideal, to which
apparently nothing in material evolution or in the
influences of material existence points. An absurd
theory has been put forth maintaining that man
had advanced by acting against his reason.


Reason, of course, includes all the intellectual ante-
cedents of action, and a man, though he may act
against his apparent interest, can no more act
against his reason than he can jump out of his skin.
But men do act against their apparent interest
for the attainment of a moral ideal, and it is diffi-
cult to trace their so doing to any law of material

Again, there is idealization, the power and habit
of imagining states of being far different from
those in which we are and far superior to it,
specially characteristic of poets, authors of Utopian
visions, and all imaginative writers. Art generally
is idealization. We see no germ of it in brutes;
nor in its origin or development does it appear to
be material.

In the same category may perhaps be placed love
of the higher and purer kind, that love which
transcends mere sexual desire such as we undoubt-
edly share with the brutes, that which inspires
noble action and is the light of domestic life.

We will be heartily loyal to physical science.
We will accept all its demonstrations, however they
may clash with our prepossessions, however humbl-
ing they ma} 7 be to humanity. But we crave consid-
eration for all real phenomena whether they may
seem to fall within the realm of physical science or

Suppose the origin of life to be discovered and
found to be in matter, as Tyndall said the poten-


tiality of all things was; what difference in our
view of our actual being or of our probable destiny
would that discovery make ? Tyndall was one of
my greatest friends. He insisted on being called a
materialist, but a man who was less materialist
in his sentiments and aspirations never lived.

Far more formidable and depressing to my mind
than anything concerning the origin of the human
frame are the objections raised by materialism to
belief in the existence of order, design, providence
in the government of the universe. Materialists
point with terrible force to volcanoes, earthquakes,
deluges, storms, deadly visitations of all kinds,
towers of Siloam constantly falling on the just as
well as on the unjust; to the geological records of
whole races of animals brought into existence
apparently only to perish ; to the enormous waste
of life attended by boundless suffering which
is caused by the over-multiplication of many
species ; to the devastation and torture incident to
the relations of species with each other, notably
to those of the carnivora with the species on which
they prey. Looking abroad to the stellar universe
they bid us mark irregularities suggestive of
chance, waste of matter in apparently uninhabi-
table worlds, errant comets and meteorites, wrecks
such as that of the Nova Persei. They bid us mark
the ultimate tendency of this planet of ours with
all that it contains and the fruit of all our efforts
to a phvsical catastrophe.


On the other hand there is the beneficence of
nature ; there is the glory of the universe to which
our souls respond ; there is beauty ; there is a
power of good everywhere struggling with evil.
The other worlds may not be habitable for beings
like ourselves. It does not follow that they are
untenanted and that the universe is a boundless
waste. We on this planet have reason and dis-
course. Is it likely that they are the accidental
products of one solitary globe and that all is sense-
less and mute elsewhere?

The most extreme physicists recognize law, and
habitually employ that term. It would be unfair
perhaps to pin them to a phrase ; but law seems to
imply a law giver.

The universe altogether is, and must apparently
remain, a mystery to us. We can form no concep-
tion of infinity or eternity. They are negative
terms expressing the limit of our mental power*
The materialistic hypothesis is unthinkable. It
postulates at the commencement of all things the
action of forces unoriginated and with nothing to
set them in operation. Even of the visible universe
we know only what our bodily senses tell us : and
what assurance have we that the evidence of our
bodily senses is complete ? The purblind mole no
doubt believes in the completeness of its vision.
We may be in a universe totally different from that
which meets our eyes, even when they are aided by
all the instruments and calculations of science.


In the stellar universe we see or seem to see dis-
order and absence of design. In human nature we
see implanted evil and destructive passions by
which terrible havoc has been made. This again
staggers our faith. We are in fact brought back
to that unfathomable mystery, the origin of evil.
We can only say that good struggles with evil, and
so far as the inhabitants of our planet are concerned'
seems on the whole gradually to prevail. One key,
or hint of a key, we perhaps have. We can form
no notion of anv moral excellence which is not the
result of effort. If we try to picture to ourselves
a seraph created perfect and incapable of falling,
mere insipidity is the result. Thus, from one point
of view, evil appears to be, as it were, the indis-
pensable trainer of good.

Let us remember that, after all, science itself is
still in progress. There may yet be further secrets
to be revealed. There may be other Darwins after

Meanwhile we have in ourselves a rule of life
and an ideal of character, the product of our nature
and the social influences under which we live. By
following that rule and working up to that ideal,
unless our nature lies to us, we shall do well.

Final \y comes the question whether there is a
future state, momentous to all, most momentous to
those who have come to the end of the present life.
Bishop Butler speaks of belief in a future life as
" the foundation of all our hopes and of all our fears


— all our hopes and fears which are of any consider-
ation." This is saying too much. If we were assured
that this life were all, we should still desire to pass
through it as easily and pleasantly as possible, in
good fellowship with the companions of our brief
journey and in the enjoyment of affection. But
there is surely no question in which we have an
equally deep interest. Our interest is social as
well as personal. For there can be no doubt that
social as well as personal morality has been largely
upheld by conscience, which is a religious monitor,
appealing from earthly tribunals to a divine judg-
ment and holding out as its sanction the prospect
of rewards and penalties beyond the grave. Cancel
the authority of conscience, and wickedness will
have no control, except opinion, which it disregards,
and the penalties of the law, which it may evade.
Cancel the authority of conscience, and the martyr
apparently is a fool.

The Positivist undertakes to console us by the
promise of a subjective immortality which we are to
enjoy as particles in the great being of humanity,
sharing the progress of the race and forwarding it
in our day. But that which is not personal and of
which we are not to be conscious is not ours.
Formularies of this kind have no practical force or
value. They will not console us for loss of this
" sensible, warm being" or for eternal separation
from those we love. They will not transform suf-
ferings into blessings or cancel all the horrors of


history. They will not compensate the slave for
whom a life of enforced toil and misery has ended
in a cruel death. They will hardly make self-
sacrifice rational. Besides, after all, the end of pro-
gress and of the great being of humanity is to be a
physical catastrophe, in which the fruits of the
effort and self-sacrifice are to be lost. I am not
here discussing the Positive philosophy. It is the
work of powerful and earnest thinkers. But it
presents itself as an induction from history, and
history is not ripe for an induction ; it is not com-
plete and we know not how far from completion it
may be. Comtism seems to me to lack a warrant
for its finality.

Of positive proof such as would be afforded by
the return of one from the dead we have none. All
the stories of ghosts and apparitions are mere tales
for a Christmas fire-side. Such of them as had any
show of credibility have been explained. A ludi-
crous part of them is that the soul always appears
in the form of the body, and generally with clothes.
Spiritualism and its fatuous planchette have been
thoroughly and repeatedly exposed. Its spirits
have to materialize, in other words have to cease to
be spirits before their presence can be perceived.
People have been made credulous by their longing
for intercourse with lost objects of affection. This
is the only feature of spiritualism worthy of any

The immortality of the soul, that is, its natural
immortality, is a Socratic, not a Christian, doctrine.


Socrates, before he drinks the hemlock, tries to
prove to his sorrowing disciples that he is about,
not to die, but to enter into a higher state of exist-
ence. He assumes what we know to be untrue,
that the soul is a being distinct from the body,
pent within the body during life and set free from
it at death. He points to the distinction between
the lyre and the melody. But one of his disciples
reminds him that when the lyre is broken the
melody dies. Socrates assumes the previous exist-
ence as well as the immortality of the soul, and
finds the evidence of that pre- existence in his doc-
trine of innate ideas.

The Christian idea is not the natural immortality
of the soul and its release from the body at death,
but the resurrection of the body. Lazarus is raised,
and Jesus rises, bodily from the dead.

Bishop Butler in his elaborate essay on a future
life assumes like Socrates the separate existence of
the soul, and argues that, it being so far as we know
indiscerptible, we have no reason to believe that it
will share the dissolution of the body. But we
know now that what we call the soul, that is our
personality, is not a being distinct from the body,
but the outcome of our whole frame, the dissolution
of which it will presumably share.

That death ends all and when a man comes to
die it signifies nothing whether his life has been
good or wicked, whether he has been a benefactor
or a scourge to his kind, is a belief from which


our whole nature recoils, and this perhaps is the
strongest evidence that we really have of the prob-
ability of a future state. Certainly, if the power
which rules the world is just and omnipotent, there
must be a life beyond the grave ; for who, looking
to the vast inequalities of the human lot, to all the
unearned prosperity and the unmerited misery of
which the world is full and which history records,
can say that justice is ione here '. Promised, it
may be, and there may be a certain instalment of
performance. That it is fully or anything like
fully performed nobody but an enthusiastic opti-
mist can maintain.

To the objections raised by the cases of infants,
savages, idiots, beings who have never seen the
light of morality, there is at present no answer.
Orthodoxy has none any more than the free
inquirer. The theory of immortality by natural
selection of the elite of the race which has been
broached, may be ingenious but is totally incapable
of verification.

We have at all events got rid of the Dantean
Purgatory and Hell. Dante is a great poet, but it
is difficult to forgive him for having painted God
as the creator and keeper of a torture-house im-
measurably more cruel than that of the worst of
Italian tyrants. Less unwelcome than purgatory
and hell, at all events, is the thought of being re-
absorbed into the general frame of nature, bloom-
ing perhaps in the flower or waving in the tree.


We need not go on adding to the sadness of death
the hideous pomp of the funeral.

If the belief in a future state should depart, as it
certainly appears to be departing, the consequence
will naturally be, in fact is already being, increased
care for the prolongation and enjoyment of this
life. Probably there will be a more intense struggle
for the goods of the present world .attended very
likely with a conflict of classes and a disturbance
of the social order. Lazarus will no longer be
satisfied with the promise of another world. Men
will continue perhaps to sacrifice themselves for the
objects of their personal love, but hardly for the
community and much less for mankind.

I did not undertake, in opening, to solve the
great questions, but only to point out what they
were and the general lines of argument about each
of them, as well as the spirit in which we should
approach them all. That has been the purport of
my address. My first word will be my last ; there
is no salvation for us but in the fearless, cautious,
reverent pursuit of truth.




To the Editor of The New York Sun — Sir :
It seems to be assumed in some quarters that if
ecclesiastical dogma departs, nothing of Christianity
will be left us. The edifice of ecclesiastical dogma
is built on belief in the Incarnation and Atonement,
which again depends on belief in the Fall of Man.
Science has apparently disproved the Fall of Man,
and proved that man, instead of falling, rose by
evolution from lower organizations. The infer-
ence seems irrisistible and fatal to dogmatic Chris-
tianity. But does this reduce Christianity to " an
ethical speculation," one of a number of the same
kind ?

The essence of Christianity as it came from the
lips of its author seems to be belief in the father-
hood of God and the brotherhood of man. Trace
the practical effect of this belief through the
centuries, disengaging it as well as you can from
ecclesiastical superfetations, from the effects of
fellowship with evil powers of the world, from the
crimes of the Papacy, and from the fanaticism of
sects. Does it not appear wherever it has prevailed,
under whatever form and in whatever circum-
stances, in all nations and in all states of life, to


have produced in those who strove to live up to it,
excellence and beneficence of character, with spiri-
tual happiness and inward assurance that it would
be well for them in the sum of things. In that
case may not Christianity fairly present itself as
something more than an ethical speculation ? May
it not claim to rank in some degree as a right
solution of the problem of humanity and a prac-
tical experiment which has not failed ?

It is said that in this struggle of righteousness
and mercy against the powers of injustice and
violence suddenly unchained, those who have borne
themselves best upon the side of that which Chris-
tians claim as Christian principle, have in many
cases not been Christians. This is true, as it is
true that some of the Christian churches have
taken that which seems to be ethically the anti-
Christian side. But have these men, in discarding
Christian profession, discarded belief in that which
is the essence of Christianity? Have they re-
nounced belief in the brotherhood of man? May
it not be said that Comte's Great Being of Human-
ity is Christ's brotherhood of man under another
name ? Belief in God may have been renounced,
yet to consecrate belief in a brotherhood of man
there must surely be some consecrating power.

As an indication that Christianity cannot stand


Online LibraryGoldwin SmithLines of religious inquiry. An address delivered to the Unitarian club of Toronto → online text (page 1 of 2)