Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Modern Belief and Doubt
By George Park Fisher (18271909)
[Born in Wrentham, Mass., 1827. Died in Litchfield, Conn., 1909. History of the Christian Church. 1888.]
IT is only when a personal will, a conscious intelligence, are denied to the Power whose energy pervades all things, that the Christian revelation is impugned. At the same time, under this blighting fatalism, human responsibility and trial, and the immortal life beyondtruths which underlie what is most lofty in works of the imaginationshrivel away. In poetry, as in science, it is not the idea of the immanence of God in the world, but the pantheistic ignoring or rejection of the complementary truththe truth of the personality of both God and manthat clashes with the convictions of a Christian. But Goethe, influenced though he was, to such a degree, by the atmosphere of thought in which he grew up, was too great a man to think lightly of the Christian faith. In one of his last conversations with Eckermann, he said: Let mental culture continually increase, let the natural sciences grow, broadening and deepening in their progress, and the human mind expand as it will,beyond the elevation and moral culture of Christianity, as it gleams and shines forth in the gospels, men will never advance. The worship of genius, under the notion that men of exalted powers are exempt from the restraints of morality, was a form of idolatry too baneful and debasing to gain a foothold where there was any life in conscience. And yet it followed naturally from the pantheistic mode of thought, in which blind power is deified and all its manifestations are regarded as equally divine.
In another great literary leader of the recent period, there is witnessed a wavering between the pantheistic and theistic position. It is Thomas Carlyle. The apostle of sincerity, his abhorrence of all falsehood implies at its root a theistic belief. A hero of faith, such as Luther, he knows how to appreciate. The godliness of Oliver Cromwell is to him something real and sacred. A passage in a letter of Carlyle, written in his last days, to his friend Erskine of Linlathen, shows the faith that was slumbering within him, and which the experience of sorrow woke to a new life. It was written after the death of his wife:
Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done; what else can we say? The other night, in my sleepless tossings about, which were growing more and more miserable, these words, that brief and grand prayer, came strangely into my mind with an altogether new emphasis, as if written and shining for me in mild, pure splendor, on the black bosom of the night there; where I, as it were, read them, word by word, with a sudden check to my imperfect wanderings, with a sudden softness of composure which was much unexpected. Not for perhaps thirty or forty years had I ever formally repeated that prayernay, I never felt before how intensely the voice of mans soul it is; the inmost aspiration of all that is high and pious in poor human nature; right worthy to be recommended with an after this manner, pray ye.
Profound convictions in relation to fundamental religious truth have been expressed by men who have stood aloof from existing church organizations, and have, perhaps, rejected the accepted dogmatic statements of Christianity. Lacordaire, the renowned French preacher, is said to have been awakened in his youth from the dreams of ambition by being struck with the nothingness of irreligion. It is not strange that such a thought should have power even with many, who from various causes fail to attain to an assured faith in the doctrines of the Church. The abyss of irreligion is felt to be something dreadful to contemplate, whether the yearnings of the individual soul are considered, or the needs of society. The rise of Socialism, with the attendant conflict of labor and capital, and concerted efforts of the working class to effect revolutionary changes, have impressed thoughtful men with the dire evil that is involved in the loss of religious trust and hope. In the generations past, laborers, even when deprived of the comforts of life, the victims, perhaps, of oppressive social arrangements, have found consolation in looking up to God, and in looking forward to compensations in a future state. In the midst of drudgery, thoughts of religion have lifted them up and cheered them under heavy burdens. Cut off from these fountains of strength, they are left with no alternative but to grasp what they can in the fleeting moments of the present life. On this subject, a man of genius, Victor Hugo, thus speaks, in a passage which is translated in The Contemporary Review:
Let us not forget, and let us teach it to all, that there would be no dignity in life, that it would not be worth while to live, if annihilation were to be our lot. What is it which alleviates and which sanctifies toil, which renders men strong, wise, patient, just, at once humble and aspiring, but the perpetual vision of a better world, whose light shines through the darkness of the present life? For myself, I believe profoundly in that better world; and after many struggles, much study, and numberless trials, this is the supreme conviction of my reason as it is the supreme consolation of my soul. There is a misfortune of our times, he continues, I could almost say there is but one misfortune of our times; it is the tendency to stake all on the present life. The duty of us all, whoever we may belegislators and bishops, priests, authors, and journalistsis to spread abroad, to dispense and to lavish in every form, the social energy necessary to combat poverty and suffering, and at the same time to bid every face to be lifted up to heaven, to direct every soul and mind to a future life where justice shall be executed. We must declare with a loud voice that none shall have suffered uselessly, and that justice shall be rendered to all. Death itself shall be restitution. As the law of the material universe is equilibrium, so the law of the moral universe is equity. God will be found at the end of all.
That the discoveries of modern science have had the effect for the time, in the case of many, of unsettling their faith in Christian truth, is an undoubted fact. It requires reflection to perceive that the scientific spiritthe pursuit of an exact, methodized, exhaustive knowledge of the world in which we live, and of man, its inhabitantstands in no contradiction to the spirit of religion. On the other hand, whatever exhilaration may spring from the enlargement of knowledge, it soon becomes clear that man cannot live by science alone, but that within him are capacities and cravings of another kind, with which the souls true life and peace are inseparably linked. It is soon perceived that the essential relations of man to God are not determined by the size of the globe, compared with other planets, by its relation to the stellar universe, by its age, or by the time that may have elapsed since mans creation. The consciousness of man that there is an infinite God above him, and a moral law within him, is not affected by facts of this nature. Evolution is perceived to be a term descriptive simply of the supposed method of nature: of the creative and directive energy by which the process begins and is carried forward, it contains no explanation. New discoveries in natural science, however, as far as they require new interpretations of the Bible, or a modification of traditional ideas respecting the character and limits of inspiration, may give rise to doubts and perplexity. It may be here remarked that not professed Christian teachers alone, but the most authoritative expounders of the new doctrines in natural science, have pronounced them nowise at variance with the great argument of design. Among these authorities in science are found most earnest and sincere believers. One of them was Faraday, who belonged to the small sect of Sandemanians, who, in the last century, separated from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but who hold to the fundamental truths of the gospel. Another was Clerk Maxwell, a physicist of the highest ability, who found nothing in the doctrine of the conservation of force to clash with the evidence of either natural or revealed religion.
In a period of transition, when old formulas are losing their hold and new statements of religious truth are not yet matured; when, also, the foundations of Christian belief are assailed by historical criticism or by philosophical speculation, it is inevitable that in many ingenuous minds faith should be mixed, more or less, with doubt. The bishop, in Brownings poem, exchanged
A life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt.
Yet under such circumstances there are victories of faith, legitimately won, which illustrate forcibly the indestructible basis on which the claims of Christianity to the allegiance of the soul rest. Such examples in modern times have been not unfrequent in Germany. Some there are, with so deep a sense of religion, and to whom the gospel shines with so clear a light, that they are never harassed by skepticism. Rothe, with a genius for speculation, with a mind open to new truth, and familiar with the theories and arguments of the skeptical schools, nevertheless declares that he had felt no doubt of the being of God, and had never experienced any difficulty in giving credence to miracles. An interesting record of triumph over doubt, of a faith in Christian verities that grew in strength from year to year, is furnished in the biography of Frederick Perthes, the publisher of Gotha, who stood in so intimate relations with Niebuhr, Schleiermacher, Nitzsch, Neander, and many other distinguished men of the time.