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The New Zealand Evangelist

The Sceptical Young Officer

The Sceptical Young Officer.

A few years ago, one of the stages which ply between our two principal cities, was filled with a group which could never have been drawn together by mutual choice. In the company was a young man of social temper, affable manners, and considerable information. His accent was barely sufficient to show that the English was not his native tongue, and a very slight peculiarity in the pronunciation of the th ascertained him to be a Hollander. He had early entered into military life; had borne both a Dutch and a French commission; had seen real service, had travelled, was master of the English language, and evinced, by his deportment, that he was no stranger to the society of gentlemen. He had, however, a fault too common among military men, and too absurd to find an advocate among men of sense; he swore profanely and incessantly.

While the horses were changing, a gentleman who sat on the same seat with him took him by the arm, and requested the favour of his company in a short walk. When they were so far retired as not to be overheard, the former observed, “Although I have not the honour of your acquaintance, I perceive, sir, that your habits and feelings are those of a gentleman, and that nothing can be more repugnant to your wishes than giving unnecessary pain to any of your company.” He started, and replied, “Most certainly, sir! I hope I have committed no offence of that sort.”

“You will pardon me,” replied the other, “for pointing out an instance in which you have not altogether avoided it.”

“Sir,” said he, “I shall be much your debtor for so friendly an act: for, upon my honour, I cannot conjecture in what I have transgressed.”

“If you, sir,” continued the former, “had a very dear friend to whom you were under unspeakable obligations, should you not be deeply wounded by any disrespect to him, or even by hearing his name introduced and used with a frequency of repetition and a levity of air incompatible with the regard due to his character.”

“Undoubtedly, and I should not permit it! but I know not that I am charged with indecorum to any of your friends.”

“Sir, my God is my best friend, to whom I am under infinite obligations. I think you must recollect that you have very frepage 336quently, since we commcnced our journey, taken his name in vain. This has given to me and to others of the company exeruciating pain.”

“Sir,” answered he, with very ingenuous emphasis, “I have done wrong. I confess the impropriety. I am ashamed of a practice which I am sensible has no excuse; but I have imperceptibly fallen into it, and I really swear without being conscious that I do so. I will endeavour to abstain from it in future; and as you are next me in the seat, I shall thank you to touch my elbow as often as I trespass.” This was agreed upon; the horn sounded, and the travellers resumed their places.

For the space of four or five miles the officer's elbow was jogged every few seconds. He always coloured, but bowed, and received the hint without the least symptom of displeasure; but in a few miles more he so mastered his propensity to swearing, that not an oath was heard from his lips for the rest, which was the greater part of the journey.

He was evidently more grave; and having ruminated some time, after surveying first one and then another of the company, turned to his admonisber, and addreseed him thus:—

“You are a clergyman, I presume, sir.”

“I am considered as such.”

He paused, and then, with a smile, indicated his disbelief of Divine revelation, in a way which invited conversation on that subject.

“I have never been able to convince myself of the truth of revelation.”

“Possibly not. But what is your difficulty?”

“I dislike the nature of its proofs. They are so subtle, so distant, so wrapt in mystery, so metaphysical, that I get lost, and can arrive at no certain conclusion.”

“I cannot admit the fact to be as you represent it. My impressions are altogether different. Nothing seems to me more plain and popular: more level to every common understanding; more remote from all cloudy speculation, or teasing subtleties, than some of the principal proofs of Divine revelation. They are drawn from great and incontestible facts; they are accumulating every hour. They have grown into such a mass of evidence that the supposition of its falsehood is infinitely more incredible than any one mystery in the volume of revelation, or even than all their mysteries put together. Your inquiries, sir, appear to have been unhappily directed—but what sort of proof do you desire, and what would satisfy you?”

“Such proofs as accompany physical science. This I have always loved; for I never find it deceive me. I rest upon it with entire conviction. There is no mistake, no dispute in mathematics. And if a revelation comes from God, why have we not such evidence for it as mathematical demonstration?”

'Sir, you are too good a philosopher not to know that the nature of evidence must be adapted to the nature of its object; seeing that evidence is no more interchangeable than objects. If page 337 you ask for mathematical evidence, you must confine yourself to mathematical disquisitions. Your subject must be quantity. If you wish to pursue a moral investigation, you must quit your mathematics, and confine yourself to moral evidence. Your subject must be the relations which subsist between intelligent beings. It would be quite as wise to apply a rule in ethics to the calculation of an eclipse, as to call for Euclid when we want to know our duty, or to submit the question, ‘whether God has spoken,’ to the test of a problem in the conic sections. How would you prove mathematically that bread nourishes men, and that fevers kill them? Yet you and I both are as firmly convinced of the truth of these propositions, as of any mathematical demonstration whatever; and should I call them in question, my neighbours would either pity me as an idiot, or shut me up as a madman. It is, therefore, a great mistake to suppose that there is no satisfactory nor certain evidence but what is reducible to mathematics.”

This train of reflection appeared new to him. Yet, though staggered, he made an effort to maintain his ground, and lamented that the “objections to other modes of reasoning are numerous and perplexing, while the mathematical conclusion puts all scepticism at defiance.”

“Sir,” rejoined the clergyman, “objections against a thing fairly proved, are of no weight. The proof rests upon our knowledge, and the objections upon our ignorance. It is true, that moral demonstrations and religious doctrines may be attacked in a very ingenrous and plausible manner, because they involve questions on which our ignorance is greater than our knowledge; but still our knowledge is knowledge, or, in other words, our certainty is certainty. In mathematical reasoning our knowledge is greater than our ignorance. When you have proved that the three angles of every triangle are equal to two right angles, there is an end of doubt; because there are no materials for ignorance to work up into phantoms; but your knowledge is really no more certain than your knowledge on any other subject. There is also a deception in this matter. The defect complained of is supposed to exist in the nature of the proof; whereas it exists, for the most part, in the mind of the enquirer. It is impossible to tell how far the influence of human depravity obscures the light of human reason.”

At the mention of “depravity,” the officer smiled, and seemed inclined to jest; probably suspecting, as is common with men of that class, that his antagonist was going to retreat into his creed, and intrench himself behind a technical term, instead of an argument. The triumph was premature.

“You do not imagine, sir,” said he, continuing his discourse to the officer, “you do not imagine that a man who has been long addicted to stealing, feels the force of reasoning against theft as strongly as a man of tried honesty. If you hesitate, proceed a step further. You do not imagine that an habitual thief feels as much abhorrence of his own trade and character as a man who never committed an act of theft in his whole life. And you will page 338 not deny that the practice of any crime gradually weakens, and, frequently destroys, the sense of its turpitude. This is a strong fact, which as a philosopher, you are bound to explain. To me it is as clear as day, that his vice has debauched his intellect; for it is indisputable, that the considerations which once filled him with horror, produce now no more impression upon him than they would produce upon a horse. Why? Has the vice changed? Have the considerations changed? No, The vice is as pernicious, and the considerations are as strong as ever. But his power of perceiving truth is diminished; and diminished by his vice; for, had he not fallen into it, the considerations would have remained; and, (should he be saved from it) they would resume their original force upon his mind. Permit yourself, for one moment, to reflect how hard it is to persuade men of the virtnes of others against whom they are prejudiced. You shall bring no proof of the virtues which the prejudice shall not resist or evade. Remove the prejudice, and the proof appears invincible. Why? Have the virtues changed? has the proof been strengthened? No. But the power of perceiving truth is increased; or, which is the same thing, the impediment to perceiving it is taken away. If, then, there are bad passions among men, and if the object of Divine revelation is to control and rectify them, it follows that a man to whom the revelation is proposed, will be blind to its evidence, in exact proportion to the perverting influence of those passions. And were the human mind free from corruption, there is no reason whatever to think that a moral argument would not be as conclusive then as a mathematical argument is now; and that the principles of moral and religious science would not command an assent as instantaneous and peremptory as that which is commanded by mathematical axioms.”

After a short pause, in which no reply was made by the officer, and the looks of the company revealed their sentiments, the clergyman proceeded,

“But what will you say, sir, should I endeavour to turn the tables upon you, by showing that the evidence of your physical science is not without its difficulties; and that objections can be urged against mathematical demonstration more puzzling and unanswerable than any objections against moral evidence.”

“I shall yield the cause; but I am sure that the condition is impossible.”

“Let us try,” said the other.”

“I begin with a common case. The Newtonian system of the world is so perfect y settled, that no scholar presumes to question it. Go, then, to a peasant, who never heard of Newton or Copernicus, nor the solar system, and tell him that the earth moves round its axis, and round the sun. He will stare at you, to see whether you be not jeering him; and when he sees you are in earnest, he will laugh at you for a fool. Ply him, now, with your mathematical and astronomical reasoning. He will answer you that he believes his own eyesight more than your learning; and his eyesight tells him the sun moves round the earth. And as for page 339 the earth's turning round upon her axis, he will say that he has often hung a kettle over the kitchen fire at night, and when he came back in the morning it was hanging there still, but, had the earth turned round, the kettle would have turned over, and the mash spilled over the floor.’ You are amused with the peasant's simplicity, but you cannot convince him. His objection is, in his own eyes insurmountable; he will tell the affair to his neighbours as a good story; and they all agree that he fairly shut the philosopher's mouth. You may reply, that ‘the peasant was introduced into the middle of a matured science, and that, not having learned its elements, he was unsupplied with the principles of correct judgment’ True; but your solution has overthrown yourself. A Freethinker, when he hears some great doctrine of Christianity, lets off a small objection, and runs away laughing at the folly, or railling at the imposture of all who venture to defend a Divine revelation; he gathers his brother unbelievers, and they unite with him in wondering at the weakness or the impudence of Christians. He is in the situation of the peasant. He bolts into the heart of a grand religious system; he has never adverted to its first principles and then he complains that the evidence is bad. But the fault in neither case lies in the evidence: it lies in the ignorance or obstancy of the objector. The peasant's ground is as firm as the infidel's. The proof of the Newtonian system is to the former as distant, subtle, and cloudy as the proof of revelation can be to the latter; and the objection of the one, as good as the objection of the other. If the depravity of men had as much interest in persuading them that the earth is not globular, and does not move round the sun, as it has in persuading them that the Bible is not true, a mathematical demonstration would fail of con verting them, although the demonstrator were an angel of God!

“But with respect to the point, viz., that there are objections to mathematical evidence more puzzling and unanswerable than can be alleged against moral reasoning, take the two following instances:

“It is mathematically demonstrated that space is infinitely divisible: that is, has an infinite number of parts; a line, then, of half an inch long, has an infinite number of parts. Who does not see the absurdity of this? Try the difficulty another way. It requires some portion of time to pass any portion of space, Then as your half inch has an infinite number of parts, it requires an infinite number of portions of time for a moving point to pass by the infinite number of parts: Consequently it requires an eternity, or something like it, to move half an inch!”

“But, sir,” interposed the officer, “you do not deny the accuracy of the demonstration. that space is infinitely divisible!” “Not in the least, sir; I perceive no flaw in the chain of demonstration, and yet I perceive the result to be infinitely absurd.”

“Sir,” said the officer, “I own I am beat, completely beat. I have nothing more to say.”

A silence of some minutes succeeded; when the young military traveller said to his theological friend, “I have studied all reli-page 340gions, and have not been able to satisfy myself.” “No, sir,’ answered he, “there is one religion which you have not yet studied.” “Pray, sir,” cried the officer, roused and eager, “what is that?”

“The religion,” replied the other, “of Salvation through the Redemption of the Son of God: the religion which will sweeten your pleasures, and soften your sorrows; which will give peace to your conscience, and joy to your heart; which will hear you up under the pressure of evils here, and shed the light of immortality on the gloom of the grave. This religion, I believe, sir, you have yet to study.”

The officer put his bands upon his face; then languidly clasping them, let them fall down; forced a smile and said, with a sigh, “We must all follow what we think best. His behaviour afterwards was perfectly decorous. Nothing further is known of him.