Monday, 9 March 2015

SUPERNATURAL RELIGION.*

This work of an able, thoughtful writer, and a deep and comprehensive student of Biblical and religious history, has been the cause of much speculation even beyond the limits of the circles to which the questions treated are usually confined. Some of this is doubtless due to the fact that the writer is unknown, and that the book has been by various guesses attributed to different persons of elevated positions in the religious world. Some of the interest it has excited is also owing to its peculiarly apropos character in the present relations of orthodox religion to the thinking power of the age. But in addition to these causes the book without question has commanded attention by the thorough-going fearless spirit, and the calm judicial tone, by which it is pervaded, and the lofty amplitude and masculine power of its discussion.

The question the author puts before himself at the outset is one than which, as he says, " there can be no more urgent problem for humanity." It is—"Is Christianity a supernatural Divine revelation or not ?' He holds that "at no time has such an investigation been more requisite." Few will dissent from this belief who have ever seriously reflected on the spectacle of the advanced cultivated thought of the age breaking away altogether from all share in the received faiths, not attacking them, not even expressly repudiating them, but contemptuously ignoring them, and passing them by as matters of no serious concern. To no one upon any side of the controversy can this be regarded as at all a satisfactory position. It is time, as our author maintains, that the intellect of the world was recalled to the consideration of what it once regarded as its worthiest sphere of exercise and labour. The claims of supernatural revelation have satisfied a large part of the world in past ages. If those claims are able to substantiate themselves in a free and fair inquiry, then it is right that the sceptical scientific intellect of the day, which so scornfully rejects them, should be called upon to justify its dissent. On the other hand, if they have to be given up, then it is due to the historical mind and conscience of humanity that we should know clearly and distinctly why they are surrendered. Christianity has filled too large a   place in the world's history, its pretensions are too vast, and its influence, past and present; is too mighty for the case to be  adjudged against it by default. In the words of our author— 

"The results of scientific inquiry and of Biblical criticism have created wide-spread doubt regarding the most material part of Christianity considered as a Divine Revelation. The mass of intelligent men in England are halting between two opinions; and standing in what seems to us the most unsatisfactory position conceivable: they abandon before a kind of vague and indefinite, if irresistible, conviction, some of the most central supernatural doctrines of Christianity.; they try to spiritualise or dilute the rest into a form which does not shock their reason; and yet they cling to the delusion that they still retain the consolation and the hope of truths which, if not Divinely revealed, are mere human speculation regarding matters beyond reason. They have, in fact, as little warrant to abandon the one part as they have to retain the other." 

Certainly it is desirable that this twilight condition of belief and disbelief, mingled together, and both alike irrational because unfounded on any substantial reasoning, should give place to clear daylight, whatever that may reveal to us. Both sides, therefore, should be indebted to the author for thus fully and distinctly raising the question, even if his work had no other effect. How he states it, how he deals with it, and the conclusions at which he arrives we shall endeavour briefly to set out.

The question, as he presents it, is not identical with its recent statement by Dr. Strauss. The great German theologian asked, "Are we still Christians? The problem discussed by our anonymous author is rather : —Judging as reasonable men upon the evidence offered, ought we to be Christians (in the received sense of the word) or not? The question is not one of fact, but of proof. He commences the inquiry by a consideration of miracles as evidence. He quotes the admission, or rather the contention, of divines that supernatural evidence is necessary to establish a supernatural revelation. But the evidence afforded by the miraculous is curiously complicated by the fact, recognised throughout the Scriptures, that miracles may, and often do, arise from a Satanic power, and are not necessarily from a Divine source. Therefore the miracle, while adduced in support of the doctrine, has itself to be tested by the doctrine, and we have only reason to guide us to a decision. Miracles are by their definition exercises of supernatural power exerted contrary to the universal order of nature. Consequently all such assumptions as those often employed by people who have given very little thought to the subject, of a miracle being an exemplification of some "unknown higher law " that is in itself natural, are to be set aside. The miracles can have no evidential force in proving the supernatural unless it is not only to our ignorance but in itself and essentially, a violation of the order of nature. Such, devices as Archbishop Trench's singular belief that "exemption from the control of the law of gravitation &c," is a "lost prerogative" of our race, which we may one day recover, are needless and unmeaning. But there is nothing more certain to our reason than that such violations of the order of nature are impossible and incredible. Upon the lowest statement of the case very extraordinary evidence is required to make such phenomena worthy of a moment's attention, to induce us to believe their actual occurrence we must, according to a well known logical canon, have a degree of evidence that is sufficient to overcome their antecedent improbability. In inquiring, therefore, into the evidence upon which Christianity rests—viz., the miracles by which its introduction was accompanied, we have to ask what, in the first place, is the evidence for these miracles themselves.

This problem is treated by the writer in a long and searching analysis as to the historic authenticity of the records contained in the Bible of the origin of Christianity. Of the scholarly, laborious, judicial investigation contained in these volumes it is almost pre sumptuous for any but a trained Biblical and theological critic to speak. An able religious paper, the Spectator, describes the author's "masterly examination of the evidences for the antiquity of the Christian Scriptures" as being "an an paralleled specimen in the English language," and further observes that the book forms " a perfect mine of information on the subject, alloyed indeed with no small prejudices yet wonderfully faithful and comprehensive." The writer has in this part of his work put up a very high standard of argumentative ability and critical and historical research, and one to which his opponents will have to rise to render their replies of much logical value. It would be wholly beyond the limits of our space to attempt even the slightest sketch of his inquiry, and we can only give some of the conclusions to which it conducts him. He says:—

" We have seen that a Divine revelation is such only by virtue of communicating to us something which we could not know without it, and which is, in fact, undiscoverable by human reason, and that miraculous evidence is absolutely requisite to establish its reality. It is admitted that no other testimony could justify our believing the specific revelation which we are considering, the very substance of which is supernatural and beyond the criterion of reason, and that its astounding announcements, if not demonstrated to be miraculous truths, most inevitably be pronounced 'the wildest delusions.' On examining the supposed miraculous evidence, however, we find that not only is it upon general grounds antecedently incredible, but that the testimony by which its reality is supported, so far from establishing the inferences drawn from the supposed supernatural phenomena, is totally insufficient even to certify the actual occurrence of the events narrated. The history of miraculous pretension in the world, and the circumstances attending this special exhibition of it, suggest natural explanations of the reputed facts which rightly and infallibly remove them from the region of the supernatural . . . A stream of miraculous pretension, in fact, has flowed through all human history, deep and broad as it has passed through the darker ages, but dwindling down to a thread as it has entered days of enlightenment" . . " Upon all grounds of Reason and experience, the supposed miraculous evidence, by which alone we could be justified in believing in the reality of the Divine revelation, must be pronounced mere human delusion, and the result thus attained is confirmed by every external consideration."

Turning to the documentary evidence for the reality of the miraculous occurrences, his conclusions are equally distinct.

" We do not find any real trace even of the existence of our gospels for a century and a half after the events they record. They are anonymous narratives, and there is no evidence of any value connecting these works with the writers to whom they are popularly attributed. . . . These gospels themselves do not pretend to be inspired histories, and they cannot upon any ground, be regarded as more than mere human compositions. As evidence for miracles and the reality of Divine revelation, they have no weight, being merely narratives, written long after the events recorded, by unknown persons, who were neither eye-witnesses of the supposed miraculous occurrences, nor hearers of the statements they profess to report." The conclusion of all this is—"The miraculous evidence upon which alone, it is admitted, we could be justified in believing its astounding doctrines being thus nugatory, the claims of Christianity to be considered a Divine Revelation must necessarily be disallowed, and its supernatural elements, which are, in fact, the very substance of the system, inevitably sharing the same fate as the supposed miraculous evidence, must, therefore, be rejected as incredible, and opposed to Reason and complete induction."

The writer by no means views the result of his inquiry to be any lessening of the importance or the authority of the religion whose supernatural element he has been considering. Christianity, he maintains," takes a higher position when recognised to be the most perfect development of human morality than it could do as an abortive pretendent to Divine honours." Further:—

" No one who pretends to make the moral teaching of Jesus the rule of life merely from dogmatic obligation can have under stood that morality at all, or penetrated beyond the mere letter of its precepts. In surrendering its miraculous element and its claims to supernatural origin, therefore, the religion of Jesus does not lose its virtue or the qualities which have made it a blessing to humanity. It sacrifices none of that elevated character which has distinguished and rated it above all human systems; it merely relinquishes a claim which it has shared with all antecedent religions, and severs its connexion with ignorant superstition. It is too divine in its morality to require the aid of miraculous attributes. No supernatural halo can heighten its spiritual beauty, and no mysticism deepen its holiness. In its perfect simplicity it is sublime, and in its profound wisdom it is eternal.

"We gain infinitely more than we lose in abandoning belief in the reality of Divine Revelation. Whilst we retain pure and unimpaired the treasure of Christian Morality, we relinquish nothing but the debasing elements added to it by human superstition. We are no longer bound to believe a theology which outrages Reason and moral sense. We are freed from base anthropomorphic views of God and his government of the universe; and from Jewish mythology we rise to higher conceptions of an infinitely wise and beneficent Being, hidden from our finite minds, it is true, in the impenetrable glory of Divinity, but whose Laws of wondrous comprehensiveness and perfection we ever perceive in operation around us. We are no longer disturbed by visions of fitful interference with the order of Nature, but we recognise that the Being who regulates the universe is without variableness or shadow of turning. It is singular how little there is in the supposed Revelation of alleged information, however incredible, regarding that which is beyond the limits of human thought, but that little is of a character which reason declares to be the 'wildest delusion.' Let no man whose belief in the reality of Divine Revelation may be destroyed by such inquiry complain that he ahas lost a precious possession, and that nothing is left but a blank. The Revelation not being a reality,that which he has lost was but an illusion, and that which is left is the Truth. If he be content with illusions he will speedily be consoled ; if he be a lover only of truth, instead of a blank he will recognise that the reality before him is fall of great peace."

The book ends with the following eloquent passage:—

"It is manifestly our first duty, as it should be our supremest pleasure, to apprehend as dearly as we may the laws by which the Supreme Being governs the universe, and to bring ourselves and our actions into reverent harmony with them, conforming our selves to their teaching, and learning wisdom from their decrees. Thus making the Divine Will our will we shall recognise in the highest sense that God is ever with us—that His good providence controls our slightest actions—that we are not the sport of Satanic malice nor the victims of fitful caprice, but are eternally cared for and governed by an omnipresent immutable power for which nothing is too great, nothing too insignificant but which equally regulates the orbits of worlds and the position of an atom, and in whose Divine order there is nothing common or unclean, but its fitting place is found for the lowest as well as the highest in the palpitating life of the Universe."

It is, of course, open to every reader to accept or reject the writer's conclusions. But alike whether they are accepted or rejected, the book must be regarded by every candid lover of truth as an important contribution to the paramount question present to the soul of humanity. No truth can be obscured or falsified by such treatment as this. If anything is dissipated and lost in the process of analysis such as this it must be something that never was worth preserving. The tone of the book, while it evinces reverence toward the subject it is investigating, should also exact respect from its critics and its opponents. In the controversies to which it is certain to give rise it would be sad for all true friends of religion to see these arguments waved contemptuously aside as mere "shallow, flippant infidelity," or to see so fair an antagonist met in a way unworthy of him, of the subject, and of the gravity of the question at issue.

*"Supernatural Religion. An Inquiry into the Reality of Divine Revelation."  London ; Longmans, Green, and Co. 1874

The Australasian 10 October 1874,

[2014 note. Now known to be written by W. R. Cassels]

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