Ladies and Gentlemen,—
In the absence of your President, and at his request, I have somewhat reluctantly consented to address to you, at this first meeting of the Society after its formation, a few introductory remarks. These, I regret to say, are necessarily very sketchy and imperfect, the time at my disposal being quite insufficient for the purpose. But such as they are I will read them.
Eclecticism, as you are aware, is the act of choosing from amongst various forms of thought or opinion on any given subject, that form which one considers good, or the best. An Eclectic Society, therefore, is a society which binds itself to no creed, but is at all times open to new light, and prepared to adopt that form of thought, be it either on religious or secular topics, which most commends itself to the reason and the understanding. It will thus be clear to us all at the outset that the members of this Society are not, or at least need not be, of one mind on any one subject—except it may be in this, that no opinion is necessarily final and incapable of change—possibly even of entire reversal.
Of course in a Society so constituted no one will feel aggrieved should others differ from him in the statements he page 4 may advance or the views he may utter. Indeed, as discussion is the life and the mainspring of progress, it is to be expected, and even hoped, that there will often be a difference of opinion; but it is also to be hoped that we shall not fail to give expression to our thoughts under the idea that they may not be those of the majority.
It need scarcely be said that an Eclectic Society cannot admit of any Pope, or of any infallible guide. Everything must be submitted to the crucial test of reason and all-searching argument; and should these upon any matter fail us, we must of necessity relegate that matter, for the present at least, to the regions of the unknowable, or at all events of the unknown. As human reason is finite, and of very limited grasp, it need not be to us any cause for discouragement that there are many things we cannot understand. Life, for example. We all have an idea what life is, but we should, I think, find considerable difficulty in explaining why we live, and what it is that supplies to otherwise inert matter that occult something which we call Life. It may therefore be that this is one of the matters that is beyond human comprehension and unknowable. But because this and many other subjects are beyond our grasp, we need not therefore blindly give ourselves up to the dicta of any would-be teachers who may claim to be able, on infallible authority, to explain these subjects for us; much less should we submit to be thus dictated to upon matters that come within the scope of human comprehension, E.g.: First, as to those matters which we are competent to demonstrate on evidence. Should one come to us with the assertion that he has learned from infallible authority that the sun revolves around the earth, and is only a subsidiary attendant upon our planet, we should have no difficulty whatever in telling him page 5 that his authority, notwithstanding its infallibility, was certainly in error. There can be no possibility of dispute here, the matter under consideration being evidently within our reach, and capable of demonstration by those who make astronomical science their study. It is impossible to accept as valid the absurd explanation offered for the misstatement of fact here referred to, that it is merely the current idea of the day that is given, and not the real opinion of the writer. Would any theologian or philosopher of our day, if discoursing to a congregation of ignorant persons, acccommodate his speech to their current ideas when bringing out of his various stores of knowledge illustrations of his subject, and by so doing lend the sanction of his authority to their ignorant and mistaken views? Most certainly he would not. No more, it is to be imagined, would any Divinely-inspired messenger, speaking as an infallible instructor, do anything so grotesque and irrational.
Then as to the class of subjects beyond our knowledge. A theologian of a not uncommon school, with a triumphant air exclaims, "You admit that you cannot explain such familiar facts even as that of your existence, and, more wonderful still, why a simple blade of grass grows. You admit these are facts nevertheless; and yet you will not admit because you cannot understand the far deeper mysteries of revelation." Ah! so you say, we may reply; but what are the mysteries of which you speak? Here is one of them: let us dissect it, and and see what it is made of. God is said to be a Being most wise, most good, most merciful, most beneficent, and yet it is asserted of him that He is so monstrously malignant, unjust, unmerciful, as to consign untold millions of human souls to the miseries of an eternal hell—not, be it remembered, so much for any wrong they page 6 may have done, as because they have not given their assent to a certain dogma which the large proportion of those lost souls have not even heard propounded for their acceptance. Shall we blindly give our assent to the statement of such theologians that their infallible authority asserts this, and therefore it must be true, whether we understand it or not, in the same way as we admit the facts of our own existence and that a blade of grass grows, though we cannot explain how? Shall we not rather reply, that the two statements are contradictory, and one or the other must be false? Either God is not most wise, most just, most merciful, or he does not, on the ground alleged, or on any ground, consign those millions indiscriminately—whether life-long criminals or comparatively sinless youths—to an eternal hell of woe and misery; and further, that the so-called infallible guide does not say on this subject what is asserted respecting it, or it is not infallible. All which will and must lead to the inevitable conclusion that this so-called mystery of revelation is not a mystery at all, but so far as appears from attainable evidence, is, as in the preceding case, a mere misstatement of fact.
So I might go on to criticise a number of topics of a like nature. They are familiar to you all, and will readily suggest themselves; but these examples may suffice as illustrations of the kind of stock arguments that are current in our day, and have for many years been allowed to pass almost unquestioned, because, being advanced with an air of authority, they were presumed to be unanswerable. These examples of false reasoning will also show the need there is for the most rigid eclecticism on such subjects, and the service that may be rendered by a society such as ours, should its aims and objects come to be properly understood and appreciated.page 7
For is it not a fact that in consequence of the almost universality of a suspicion that not a few of the current ideas on religious, or perhaps more properly, theological matters, are untenable, Christianity has become emasculated and powerless to stem the torrent of all-pervading vice and sensuous pursuits, and there is reason to apprehend, is slowly it may be, but surely losing its control over the lives and consciences of even its pronounced adherents? What more needful under such circumstances of mental change—possibly even revolution—than that we should do what we can to aid in evolving out of the disintegrating elements of the old, a new and potent religious and moral sentiment which will bear the test of modern thought and criticism?
But our attention need not by any means be confined to the discussion of topics such as the above. There is a wide field open before us in the realms of mental philosophy, art, science, history, &c. Indeed, we might adopt with propriety the maxim of the Latin philosopher, "Nihil humanum à me alienum puto." We might even improve upon that idea, and say that nothing which can come under human cognizance is foreign to us. With this wide, it may be said, illimitable range we can be at no loss for subjects. It remains for us to cultivate those extensive fields to the best of our knowledge and ability. We may not be able to bring to bear upon their elucidation the learning and skill of College Professors; but we have this advantage which such Professors have not: we are not necessarily trained into any special groove of thought, and have not assumed as it were the position of paid advocates for any school. We are free to look all around every subject, and view it in all lights without any fear that if we should be too inquisitive we might cut the ground from under our feet, and see our Professorship page 8 or our conscience in imminent peril. No such danger awaits us, and although it may be sometimes trying and mayhap discouraging to find ourselves out of sympathy with many whose good opinion we value, still that is a small matter compared with the gratification we may experience in being free to gaze upon the light with unveiled vision, and to see the truth opening out before us in all directions.
Allow me, in conclusion, to express a hope that the members of this Society will not be discouraged because they may find their protegé at first not very demonstrative. Such is the usual fate of almost all efforts of this class. Men of standing and eminence do not as a general rule attach themselves to a new undertaking. When it has worked its way into popular favour and appreciation, then numbers may be found willing to lay their shoulders to the work. But all in good time. A gradual, slow, and quiet growth is in the end the surest and the best.
With these few very inadequate and cursory remarks, I commend our new-fledged Society to the care and protection of its members.
Mills, Dick and Co., Steam Printers, Stafford street, Dunedin.