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Religion and Science

Brownson’s Quarterly Review, April, 1874

            This is a serious and an honest attempt to compose the quarrel between the scientists and the theologians, by a scientist of no mean pretensions; and, from the Protestant point of view, we presume, it will be regarded as decidedly successful.  From the slightest acquaintance we have had with the author we are disposed to think well of him as a man, and we feel quite sure that he has written his book with laudable intentions and a sincere desire to advance the cause of truth.  But however great may be his attainments in the physical sciences, his knowledge of Christian theology is very superficial, and wholly inadequate to the task he has undertaken.  We find much in his lectures that is true and happily expressed, but we find in them not the faintest conception of Christianity as the kingdom of mediatorial grace, or as presenting the end and the means of attaining it, in reference to which man and the universe are created and governed.

            We do not question the author’s intentions, but we do question his competency to treat the great subject he has chosen to discuss.  He has not the knowledge, either of theology or philosophy, necessary for that.  Religion is a subject of which it is safe to say he knows literally nothing.  And though he professes to be a Christian, he has not the slightest conception of the essential principles of Christianity.  He uses philosophical  and theological terms without the least suspicion of their meaning as used by philosophers and theologians, and betrays an ignorance of the sense of the Christian doctrines which he professes to hold, and undertakes to harmonize with what he calls science, which would be hardly creditable to the youngest member of the lowest class in catechism in a really Christian Sunday-school.  The habits of his mind generated by the exclusive study of the physical sciences blind him to spiritual truth, and render him incapable of grasping any really Christian or philosophical principle.  Never before have we seen so forcibly struck with the power of the so-called sciences to blunt and dwarf the intellect as we have been in reading these Lectures on Religion and Science.  Here is a full-grown man, more intellectually imbecile than an infant.

            The author defends what he calls the “Personality of the Deity,” “Contrivance,” and “the Trinity,” “the Incarnation,” “the Essential Attributes of the Deity: Truth, Justice, Love, Holiness,” and contends that they are revealed alike in the Holy Scriptures and in the book of nature, and that they are alike truths of religion and science; but he explains them in a sense in which no orthodox theologian ever understands them, and which a Huxley, a Herbert Spencer, or the editor of the Popular Science Monthly, would have no difficulty in accepting.  We observe that he seldom uses the word GOD, but almost always uses the abstract term Deity- deitas, which shows that his assertion that Deity is revealed in Scripture and reason as personal has in his mind no distinct meaning, and that his Deity is an abstraction, and no real God at all.  The heathen who recognized a plurality of gods, might properly enough speak of the Deity as expressive of the nature common to them all; but it is not allowable to a Jew or a Christian, who believes in one only God, and that the one and only God is real and necessary being.  God is not an abstraction or a generalization, and only concrete not abstract terms are proper to be used in speaking of him.  The author’s constant use of the word Deity for God proves, supposing him to understand himself, which is very doubtful, that he does not recognize one only personal God.  He says, p. 12, “Theism or a belief in God or gods, or in a supernatural agency of some kind controlling the phenomena around us, is the fundamental basis and foundation of all religion, and is therefore necessary, universal, and intuitive.”  This is a specimen of the logic of scientists, which draws conclusions without any middle term expressed or understood.  The definition is otherwise faulty.  It does not include the creative act of God, and is applicable to the heathen superstitions as the Christian theism, which alone is “the supernatural agency,” asserted, is asserted simply as “controlling the phenomena around us,” which, for ought that appears, may be a simple inherent natural force manifesting itself in them, and no supernatural agency at all.

            The author asserts the personality of “Deity,” and says the human mind and heart require a personal Deity, but he nowhere tells us what he means by the divine personality.  He says, “Theism neither requires nor admits of proof,” p.13, and seems to hold the same of the divine personality, though he infers it from what he calls “contrivances.”  He labors to prove that the “supernatural agency” he asserts reveals itself as intelligent, but both Plato and Aristotle held the divine power they asserted, to be mind or intelligence, and yet were not theists, but pantheists.  Spinoza held thought or intelligence to be one of the essential attributes of the one only substance which he calls God.  The constitutive element of personality is not intelligence alone, but reason, which includes both intelligence and free-will.  Brutes are more or less intelligent, but they are not persons, for they have not reason, and act from instinct or the inherent laws of their own nature, not from free-will, just as the author makes God himself act; for he nowhere, that we have discovered, recognizes the free-will or liberty of God.  He nowhere asserts God as a free actor, but maintains that he is subject, in all his operations, to invariable and inexorable laws, the law of his own being indeed, but still a law as necessary as his own eternal essence: which assumes that in all his works he is simply acting out his eternal and necessary nature, that is, acting from intrinsic necessity  or the inherent laws of his own eternal and necessary being.  God, of course, must act, if he acts at all, as God, but with him all things are possible, except to belie his own nature, or to annihilate himself; but he is free to create or not, and to create or govern as he pleases, and he has made man and the universe as they exist, not because he could not have made them otherwise, but because he did not choose to make them otherwise.  The laws by which he sustains and governs them, and about which scientists babble so much nonsense, do not manifest or flow from his own eternal and immutable essence, but are his free acts, created and determined by his sovereign will, without his being obliged to impose them on his creatures by either external or internal necessity.

            The author’s universe consists, if we rightly apprehend his doctrine, of four terms, phenomena, laws, forces, and an omnipresent energy, which he calls Deity or God.  The domain of science is all that lies between, and only what lies between, the sensible phenomena and Deity.  The phenomena are the materials, but not the subject of science, and Deity is above science, whence it follows that God, as Herbert Spencer maintains, is unknowable.  He is an object of faith, but not of science or knowledge.  Science groups the sensible phenomena under laws, resolves the laws into forces, and finally, as its proudest triumph, into the one omnipresent energy which is Deity or God, from which all flows or emanates. The author says:


            “Nature reveals herself to us in sensuous phenomena, infinitely numerous and infinitely varied.  These phenomena are not the subject of science; they are only the object of sense.  They affect animals precisely as they do us.  The first step in human reason, and therefore in science, is the grouping of these phenomena into laws.  The next step is to rise higher, and group these laws under higher, fewer, and more general laws.  We then, by a higher generalization, group these under still higher, fewer, and more general principles or forces of Nature.  These are electricity, magnetism, heat, light, gravity, chemical affinity, vital force, and the like.  For a long time the generalizing faculty of man paused just here.  These forces seemed to be separate, independent principles or agents, controlling the phenomena of the universe; and all phenomena were grouped under these, producing the different departments of science.  But it is the glory of modern science to have shown that these, again, may be transmuted into each other; that they are not independent principles, but are all only different forms of one universal, omnipresent energy, which is nothing less than the omnipresent energy of Deity himself.  On a previous occasion I spoke of the fact that the realm or domain of human thought and human science is all that lies between the human phenomenon, the object of sense, and the First Cause, the object of faith.  Now, here you will observe that science has carried us up higher and higher until it brings us within sight of the splendors of “the great white throne,” and of Him who sits thereon.

             “Now, this last step in science has been justly regarded as the greatest triumph of human thought; but there is another generalization, of which we hear little talk, a generalization far grander because in a higher, viz., a moral field; a generalization not reached by human thought, but freely given by Divine revelation; a generalization not expressed in a scientific formula, but enunciated in simple language by Divine lips.  Let us trace the process and the stages here also. 

              “Human duties or moral acts, like natural phenomena, are infinitely numerous and infinitely varied, ever changing with changing conditions.  These are in the domain of the sensuous and the phenomenal; they are not the subject but only the materials of philosophy.  The first step in reason and philosophy, the first generalization, is grouping these under laws- laws of church, laws of state, laws or customs of society.  The next step is, again, grouping these under, or tracing these up to, ten grand moral principles.  These are the ten commandments, from which, we all admit, flow all lower laws and duties.  This was the generalization of the old dispensation, the Mosaic generalization, the grandeur of which it is difficult for us now to appreciate.  For a long time the process of generalization again paused just here, until the coming of the Divine Master.  Then these, again, by a higher generalization, are traced up to two grand principles, love of God, and love to man; and these are but two forms of the one, viz., love, and God is love.  And thus we are carried up again to God himself, the last term of human thought.

              “Observe again: In external Nature all laws and all forces are but modes of the same omnipresent Divine energy; the form or mode varying according to the varying conditions under which the one energy operates.  So, also, in moral nature, all moral principles, all laws of church, of state, or society, in so far as they are true principles and laws, are but different modes of the one omnipresent Divine moral energy, love; the forms and modes varying according to the conditions under which the one energy operates.  Such being the absolute unity of the physical forces of Nature, do you not perceive that it is impossible to destroy one force without destroying all?  For all are different forms of the same; it is impossible to abrogate one law without destroying the whole system of laws.  To break one law, is to break all; to keep one, is to keep all.  So also it is in the moral world, and for the same reason: ‘He who offends in one point is guilty of the whole.’  To break one law, is to break all; to keep one, is to keep all, because all are one.  Keeping or breaking any law is fulfilling or violating the one universal law of love.

              “I recollect once hearing a pure-minded young lady say that she thought there was at least one commandment which she was unconscious of ever having broken.  In some surprise I asked which it was.  She answered, The Third ‘ “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”’ I believe many persons think they never break that law.  On the contrary, we all fail to keep this law.  To keep this law is to keep all the Divine laws.  In its deep spiritual meaning, what is the third commandment?  It is to rise to a just conception of Deity, and then to give all the honor and reverence due to that conception.  Any thing short of this fails to fulfill the law of love and reverence embodied in the third commandment.

              “Finally, let me draw your attention to the contrary process of Divine and human activity- Divine activity in revealing himself to man; and human activity in upreaching  and apprehending Deity.  Deity flows downward into Nature, first as the one omnipresent energy; but this is far above the reach of man.  He then comes lower and nearer the apprehension of man by separating into the great principles or forces of Nature; then, again, these reveal themselves, and He through them reveals himself, and comes nearer the apprehension of man, in the laws which flow from these forces, and so on until the last ramifications as phenomena reach and fix themselves in the sensuous nature of man.”

              “Man on the contrary, commencing with these extreme ramifications, by a reverse process passed upward in thought, from phenomena to laws, from laws to forces, from forces to the one omnipresent energy, and so back again to God himself.”

              “So also is it in the moral world.  Deity flows downward into the heart of man, and reveals himself there as the universal energy, love. But. Alas! How little understood!  It must become far lower and become far more manifold and concrete, before man can take hold and climb up.  It divides, then, into two great principles- love to God and love to man- again into ten great moral principles, and again into laws religious, political, and social, and so downward into the daily duties of life which flow from these laws.  This is the natural law of revelation, whether in the physical or moral world- whether in external Nature or in the heart of man.  Scriptural revelation is rather a Divine help to the human process.  This human process is similar to what I have already described.  Man, in thought, passes from daily duties to laws, then traces these laws to fewer moral principles, and these upward into the one general principle of love, and thus back again to God.”

              “The same two processes may be again otherwise illustrated: The essential nature of Deity- the absolute, the unconditioned- in the first step downward in the flow of revelation toward man, reveals itself in what we call the essential attributes.  Downward again it flows, becoming more human, and nearer to the comprehension of man, and reveals itself in the moral attributes.  Still downward it flows manward, and reveals itself in the individual, providential acts of Deity.  Human thought, on the other hand, by a reverse process, ascends from Divine acts to moral attributes, from these to essential attributes, from these again to the absolute, the unconditioned.”

              “Thus, you perceive that the Divine activity in self-revelation is decensive, down-reaching toward man; while human activity, in apprehending, is up-reaching and ascensive.  Again, the law of Divine self-revealing is not only decensive, but proceeds by successive ramification,  successive differentiation, until the last ramifications take firm hold of and are deeply inbedded in the sensuous nature of man; while human activity, in apprehending Deity, takes hold of these last ramifications, and ascends by an inverse process of successive integration and unification, until it reaches the conception and the worship of the absolute unity of Deity.” - Pp. 152-157



            There is no mistaking the author’s doctrine as set forth in this chapter on Love.  In both the physical world and the moral world, God is the universal energy, or one living force, of which all the laws and forces of the universe are simply manifestations, phases, or modes, as held by Spinoza and all pantheists.  God is not the creator, if the author is to be believed, but the energy of the universe, or the force that energizes in it.  Energy is not a cause operating ad extra, or externally, but an internal force that operates within,  the anima mundi of Aristotle, or the “spiritus intus alit,” or “mens agitat molem,” which Vergil sings in the sixth book of the Aeneid.  The author evidently holds the identity of all forces with the one universal force or energy, which he calls Deity, and which, as intra-cosmic, not supra-cosmic, is no Deity or God at all.  Indeed, he expressly calls the laws and forces, all that lies between the sensible phenomena and God, in both the physical world and the moral, modes of the divine being, or energy, and therefore resolves the categories into two:  being and phenomenon, or substance and mode, which, we need not say, is pure pantheism.

            The author, no doubt, is far from understanding the natural and necessary import of the language he uses, and he probably, in his profound ignorance of the science of theology, which for him is no science at all, really believes that he is decidedly a theist and no pantheist.  We are far from accusing him of being knowingly and intentionally a pantheist, that is to say, an atheist.  He does not appear to be at all aware that the reduction of the categories to being and phenomenon is pure pantheism, or the denial of creation and therefore of all distinction of substance between God and the universe.  Yet such is the fact; for phenomenon have in themselves no substance and are real only in the being of which they are the manifestation or appearance.  They are shadows without substance.  The scientists call sensible facts phenomena, and therefore deny all reality to the mimesis, as Plato calls it, that is, the individual and sensible; when, therefore, they identify the supersensible, or as they say, laws and forces with the one divine force, energy, being, or substance,- Deity, in the language of the author,- they necessarily deny all real distinction between God and the universe, and fall into pantheism, which, as we have elsewhere shown, is only a form of atheism.  The fact is, Professor Le Conte, belongs, after all, to the Spencerian school, which is not possible to reconcile with Christian theism or genuine philosophy, as we show in our Refutation of Atheism.

             These criticisms are sufficient to show that the author’s assertion of a personal Deity or God, however true in itself, counts for nothing in his system, for his systematic conception of God is that, not of a blind force indeed, but nevertheless of an impersonal force or energy, of which the laws and forces of nature are the emanation or outflow, or simply modes or forms, as he expressly teaches in his Lecture on Love, one of the essential attributes of “Deity.”  We pass over what the author says of the attributes of God, with the simple remark that he appears not to be aware that there is no distinction in re in God between one attribute and another, between his attributes and his being, or between his essentia and his esse.  God is one, in the language of the author, “absolute and unconditioned being.”  The distinction of attributes, of attributes and being, and of essence, esse, or concrete being, is simply a distinction in our apprehension, originating in the inadequacy of our faculties to take in, at one view, all that is cognizable of God, not a distinction in God himself, and no conclusions drawn from the assumption that it is a real distinction in him, and not simply a distinction imposed on our conception of him by the weakness of our faculties, are or can be valid.  Essential attributes are identical with the essence which is not a mere substratum, or being abstracted from its attributes, but the being itself with all its attributes, since it is that which makes any thing what it is.

            The author maintains that Deity is revealed in Scripture and nature, as Triune.  That God is Trinity, three divine persons in one essence, we of course hold, but that he is revealed as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in nature, or that he is clearly so revealed even in Scripture, is doubtful to us.  Without supernatural revelation we could never find it in nature, and without the tradition of the church, Unitarians prove, that we could hardly find it in the Written Word.  When we have the doctrine from revelation and the tradition of the church, the ground and pillar of the faith, we find confirmation of it in both Scripture and reason.  But the Trinity Professor Le Conte asserts has no analogy with the Trinity of Christian tradition or theology, and at the most is only the Trinity of the Sabellian heresy.  His Trinity, in the first place, is not a distinction of persons at all, and in the second place, is not a distinction ad intra, but simply a distinction ad extra.  God is not Triune in himself, but simply in his external manifestations; he manifests himself externally under a threefold aspect, in three modes, or in three relations to us.  The author has the temerity to discuss the profoundest questions of theology without the slightest knowledge even of its terminology.  A more inept or confused lecture we never met, and hope never to encounter, than his lecture XII, on the Unity and Trinity of Deity.  The author’s ignorance of his subject is sublime.  His utterances defy analysis, and it would be labor lost to attempt to reduce them to order, and to find in them an intelligible meaning.

            The author finds, or thinks he finds, the mystery of the Incarnation in Scripture, and also in nature, but we somewhat doubt if he himself can say what he means by the Incarnation, or whether he attaches any distinct meaning to the mystery.  As near as we can come to his meaning, what he understands by it is Deity revealing himself in a human or sensible form, since it is only through the sensible that we can rise to the conception of the spiritual.  God is spirit, and it is only through the human that we can conceive or know the divine.  Then prior to the assumption of flesh by the Word, men had no knowledge of God?  The Incarnation, for the author, is not the assumption of human nature by the Son or Word to be the nature of God, as really and as truly as is the divine nature itself, and therefore uniting both natures without mixture or confusion, in one divine person, in whom they are forever distinct, but the simply the revelation of the identity of the divine and human natures, or the essential oneness of God and man.  He apparently denies all difference of nature between us and God, except what in us is finite, in him is infinite.  Carry up the attributes of the soul to infinity, and the soul would be identically God.  God, then, in the Incarnation did not and could not assume human nature, for it was always one with his divine nature.  This follows necessarily from the author’s pantheistic conception of God as the one omnipresent force or energy, from which all forces or laws flow, and which science traces back to him as their fountain.

            It is quite unnecessary to follow the author further in his dogmatical discussions.  His pretensions are great, but his ignorance of philosophy and theology, marvelous in any but a scientist, render his performance small.  He says with commendable modesty in his Preface, p. 4, “My studies have been chiefly scientific, and not metaphysical, and yet I unavoidably touch on many metaphysical points.  It may be that to those profoundly versed in metaphysics, my handling of these subjects may seem crude, but I hope that this also may be compensated for by the fact that they are presented from a side not usually noticed by theological and metaphysical writers.”  The professor’s handling not only seems crude, but really is so, and as far as we are able to judge, the crudeness is not compensated for by any novelty of the side on which he presents the questions he treats.  He is too unfamiliar with the treatment they have usually received from theological and metaphysical writers, except such writers as Paley, Brougham, and the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises, who are, like himself, scientists rather than philosophers or theologians.  He has, we dare affirm, never read a first-class theologian or philosopher in his life, and has presented the topics he treats under no aspect not familiar even to us.  He evidently is not competent to say what side of these topics theological and metaphysical writers do or do not usually touch, and for him to pretend that he has presented a side of any important question which they fail to present, or at least to consider, is very presumptuous.  As he was not obliged to publish his lectures, nothing can excuse him for having done so, while conscious of his ignorance of the metaphysical and theological points he must unavoidably touch.  He should have waited till he had mastered them before rushing into print.

            The author aims to show the revelations the scientist reads in nature, the field of his studies, and those which he reads in the Holy Scriptures are, if not identical, at least in strict accordance.  No novel aim surely.  But he has no certain measure or criterion by which to test his readings of either, and all that he can do at the very best is to show that his readings for the time being of the one, are in strict accordance with his readings of the other.  For him both science and faith are variable quantities, and he is very severe against the old writers who sought to stamp them with a fixed character.  They are both progressive, and either may be modified to meet the demands of the other.  The reconciliation aimed at between religion and science becomes, therefore, in his hands, a matter of no moment, because it would be only the harmonizing with one another of an individual’s own opinions.  The author is a genuine Protestant, and has an elastic yardstick, as President Grant would have an elastic currency, that elongates or contracts according to the quantity to be measured.  No one can read his book without being forcibly struck with the absurdity of the Protestantism which professes to make the Bible its rule of faith.  Both science and religion are objectively fixed quantities, and the only variableness possible in them, is in our interpretations of them; but neither interprets itself, and the interpretation of either, by private reason or by each individual for himself, may vary with each individual interpreter.  The Protestant rule gives, therefore, not the truth itself, but the interpreter’s view of it, which may or may not be true, and which at best can give only an uncertain opinion, which is neither science nor faith.

            The author, like most scientists, draws general conclusions from particular facts, which is not permissible.  In every valid argument, the major premise must be a universal proposition, or a proposition that is universally true; but the scientists take a particular fact for their major, and not seldom dispense with both the major and the middle.  From phenomena, the scientists conclude laws, from laws, forces, and from particular forces one universal force in which all particular forces are unified or integrated, perfectly unconscious that their conclusion is only a generalization or abstraction; and also perfectly unconscious that if the mind had not intuition of the universal principles on which the particular phenomena, laws, and forces depend, the conclusion would not only be invalid, but impossible.  There are no people who have less science, as we understand science, then your thorough-bred scientists.  Indeed, the author virtually denies all science, by making God, who is the first principle in science as well as in the real, an object of faith, not of science.  He builds his science on faith, faith in the revelations of “Deity,” in nature, and in Scripture, and either denies all real, actual knowledge in any order, or regards it as something very different from science.

            The lecturer, though liberal in illustrations, many of which illustrate nothing to us, or serve only to divert the attention of the reader from the point under discussion, is very chary of definitions.  He proposes to show the accordance of Religion and Science, but he nowhere defines what he means by either.  He tells us, in a vague and uncertain way, what is the foundation and condition of religion, namely, “Theism or a belief in God or gods, or in a supernatural agency of some kind controlling the phenomena around us,” but not what religion is; he tells us, also, what is the domain of science, namely what lies between the “sensuous(sensible)  phenomena and the First Cause,” but he does not condescend to define what science is.  How are we then to decide whether he proves his thesis, the accordance of religion with science, or not?  The object of science, we gather from putting various passages together, is not God, who, he maintains, is the object only of faith; nor is it the sensible phenomena themselves, but laws and forces.  But science, as distinguished from simple cognition, is the science of principles, and the reduction of facts to the principle on which they depend.  Hence, there is and can be no science without the recognition of God, the first principle of all, and from which all secondary principles proceed.  To exclude God from the object of science is to deny all science; for without him there can be no laws and forces, as there can be no second causes without the first cause.  Yet the author tells us science is restricted to second causes.  But the scientist cannot know second causes, if ignorant that there is a first cause, nor treat what even he calls scientific questions without touching theology, which is the principle and basis of all science, or, as they said formerly, the queen of the sciences.

            If the professor had begun by defining Religion and Science and by getting in his head a just conception of the real relation they bear to each other, he would have spared both himself and his readers the greater part of what he has written.  There can be no discrepancy between religion and science, or between the teachings of nature and the teachings of revealed religion or Christianity, for the two not only proceed from the same author, but are simply two stages in one design, or two parts of one uniform whole.  Nature is initial in the Creator’s design; and the Christian order, the palingenesia, as St. Paul calls it, is teleological, and fulfills or completes the initial, or order of natural generation.  There can be no discrepancy or antagonism, in re, between the two orders, and no opposition but that of the part to the whole, the initial to its fulfillment.  Science is what we can know of the two parts of this one whole by reason of our natural faculties.  Faith is what we know analogically of them, in so far as they transcend the reach of reason or the powers we hold from the order of generation, through the medium of supernatural revelation preserved in the written and unwritten tradition of the Word of God handed down to us by the church.  It is a mistake to suppose that science is restricted to the natural order alone, as it is to identify the initial and teleological with the natural and supernatural.  Nature is supernatural in both its origin and end, and that it is so is scientifically demonstrable, as we think we have shown in our Essay in Refutation of Atheism.  We can know by our natural faculties much that belongs to the supernatural, for the supernatural is to some extent intelligible, while we cannot know by our natural powers all that belongs to the natural order, no small part of which is not only supersensible, but superintelligible.

            Evidently, there can be no discrepancy between science and faith, objectively considered; for as God is supreme Logic, Logic itself- the Logos- he must be always consistent or in accord with himself, and therefore all his works, taken as a whole, must be supremely dialectic, without any jar or discord.  Whatever apparent discrepancy we may discover between religion and science, must necessarily be subjective, in our views or theories of the one or the other, or of both, and grows out of the incompleteness of our views or of our rendering of them.  What needs to be reconciled is never nature and revelation, but our interpretations of them, which often conflict with one another, and with the objective reality.  But this is precisely what, though often attempted, no Protestant can do, for he has no certain criterion of the true sense of revelation.  He undertakes to collect