Saturday, 25 April 2015

MODERN SCEPTICISM— THE LATE STEWART MILL.

Attentive readers of the English papers will hardly have failed to observe indications of the spirit of free inquiry as applied to revelation. A great many books on the subject written in a sceptical spirit have been lately published, and have found a ready market. Pre-eminent among them is a work of two vols., published by Longman, entitled " Supernatural Religion : an enquiry into the reality of a Divine Revelation," which, though published at 24s., has reached a third edition. The book has created much stir, and is highly praised for its erudition and power of argument by the secular journals. It is written anonymously, but the author is said to be Mr. Pusey, a nephew of the great Tractarian. The writer brings all the force of his patriotic learning, which, however, may have been borrowed from German writers, to show that the four Gospels are founded on manuscripts, which are an expansion of earlier and more meagre records ; that St. John's Gospel was written at a very late period, and that miracles as a disturbance of the regular laws of nature, including the resurrection, are impossible. He does not deny that Jesus Christ lived, or was an exalted character, a teacher by whom the world might profit, but that he was not divinely inspired. At present there has been no reply to this undoubtedly able work, but Professor Lightfoot is about to take it in hand, in successive numbers of the Contemporary Review, and we have had recent expression of opinion on the part of the Primate, the Bishop of Manchester, and others. The latter in the course of one of his sermons is reported to have said: — One always regretted, of course, to be brought into conflict with what was called the thought of the age. We were told with a loud voice that the thought of the age was emancipating itself from the dogmas of Christianity and those fetters with which religion had so long bound the thought of the world. In his lecture at Manchester, Professor Tyndall as much as said that at Belfast he was not in his best mood, and that his despondency created thoughts which paused away in brighter moments. They did not want, however, to hear of thoughts that sustained us in bright spring, but in dark and dreary times. Had he been at his lecture the other night instead of being in Yorkshire, he would have asked Professor Tyndall to tell them, since they did not want to quarrel with scientific men, if they were nothing more than a combination of molecular atoms held together by certain forces he called organism and environment, what became of their personal identity, and when they dissolved did they get rid at once and for all by death of their identity, their responsibilities, and their hopes and fears? These were questions they had a right to ask scientific men to answer. They had no right to take them to the edge of an abyss, bidding them look down in a deep dark chasm, and telling them never to mind it but to do their duty. He did not see how a combination of molecular atoms could do its duty any more than a magnet, and if he was such a combination he was not a bit more responsible.
   In the lecture above referred to delivered in the Manchester Free Trade Hall on "Crystallised and Molecular Forces," Dr. Tyndall gave further, and a more distinct expression to his views. He said—" Depend upon it, that the revelations of science are not in the least degree calculated to lessen our feelings of surprise. We are surrounded by wonders and mysteries everywhere. I have sometimes — not some times, but often — in the springtime watched the advance of the sprouting leaves, and of the grass, and of the flowers, and observed the general joy of opening life in nature, and I have asked myself this question :— "Can it be that there is no being or thing in nature that knows more about these things than I do? Do I in my ignorance represent the highest knowledge of these things existing in this universe?" Ladies and gentlemen, the man who puts that question fairly to himself, if he be not a shallow man, if he be a man capable of being penetrated by profound thought, will never answer the question by professing that creed of atheism which has been so lightly attributed to me. In concluding the lecture the Professor added : — It is not always those who are charged with scepticism that are the real sceptics — (hear, hear, and cheers)— and I confess it is a matter of some grief to me to see able, useful, and courageous men running to and fro upon the earth wringing their hands over the threatened destruction of their ideals. I would exhort them to cast out scepticism, for this fear has its root in scepticism. In the human mind we have the substratum of all ideals, and as surely as string responds to string when the proper note is sounded, so surely, when words of truth and nobleness are uttered by a living human soul, will these words have a resonant response in other souls ; and in this faith I abide, and in this way I leave the question.
 Very great interest has been excited by the appearance of Mr. Mill's posthumous work, to be published by Messrs. Longman on the 26th, entitled, 'Three Essays on Religion : Nature, Utility of Religion, Theism,' in which that philosopher expresses views hardly in harmony with those he had usually maintained on religious questions, as the fol lowing remarkable extract, relative to the character of Jesus Christ, will show. Mr. Mill, towards the close of the volume, says : — "The most valuable part of the effect on character which Christianity has produced by holding up in a divine person a standard of excellence and a model for imitation is available even to the absolute unbeliever, and can never more be lost to humanity. For it is Christ rather than God whom Christianity has held up to believers as the pattern of perfection for humanity. It is the God incarnate more than the God of the Jews or of nature, who, being idealised, has taken so great and salutary a hold on the modern mind. And whatever else may be taken away from us by rational criticism, Christ is still left ; a unique figure, not more unlike all his precursors than all his followers, even those who had the direct benefit of his personal teaching. It is of no use to say that Christ, as exhibited in the Gospels, is not historical, and that we know not how much of what is admirable has been superadded by the tradition of his followers. The tradition of followers suffines to insert any number of marvels, and may have inserted all the miracles which he is imputed to have wrought. But who among his disciples or among their proselytes was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character retailed in the Gospels ? Certainly not the fishermen of Gallilee ; as certainly not St. Paul, whose character and idiosyncracies were of a totally different sort ; still less early Christian writers, in whom nothing is more evident than that the good which was in them was all derived, as they always professed that it was derived, from a higher source. About the life and sayings of Jesus there is a stamp of personal originality, combined with profundity of insight, which, if we abandon the idle expectation of finding scientific precision where something very different was aimed at, must place the Prophet of Nazareth, even in the estimation of those who have no belief in His inspiration, in the very first rank of the men of sublime genius of whom our species can boast. When this pre-eminent genius is combined with the qualities of probably the greatest moral re former and martyr to that mission who ever existed upon earth, religion cannot be said to have made a bad choice in pitching on this man as the ideal representative and guide of humanity ; nor even now would it be easy, even for an unbeliever, to find a better translation of the rule of virtue from the abstract into the concrete than to endeavor so to live that Christ would approve our life. When to this we add that, to the conception of the rational sceptic, it remains a possibility that Christ actually was what he supposed Himself to be— not God, for he never made the smallest pretension to that character, and would probably have thought such a pretension as blasphemous as it seemed to the men who condemned Him, but a man charged with a special, express, and unique commission from God to lead mankind to truth and virtue, we may well conclude that the influences of religion on the character which will remain after the rational criticism has done its utmost against the evidences of religion are well worth preserving, and that what they lack in direct strength as compared with those of a firm belief is more than compensated by the greater truth and rectitude of the morality they sanction.
 This candid expression of opinion by Mr. Mill to the recent concessions made by Dr. Tyndall do not at all please the organs of pure Ritualism, such as the Pall Mall Gazette, which accuses the former of being weak and inconclusive in his latter days— allowing his mind to be overclouded, and his imagination obscured ; and the latter with having taken alarm at the orthodox outcry raised against his address at the Belfast meetings of the British Association. One thing is very noticeable in our day, that a man who avows sceptical, or an atheistic views, is not persecuted or proscribed, but rather otherwise. For the most part, he is courted and deferred to. This shows what a reaction there is against sacerdotalism whether as exhibited in the Romish Church, or in the milder form of Anglican High Churchism. The change is also partly due to the progress of science, and especially to the growing acceptance of the doctrine of evolution, which is not, however, really at variance with supernatural religion. The gathering conflict between faith and free thought will, perhaps, not have a fair field, especially for the support of a Divine revelation, till all ecclesiastical bodies are severed from civil authority, and are left to rely on their own inherent resources.


South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail 9 January 1875

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