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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37

Nature and Supernature

Nature and Supernature.

Inquiring, then, what is the first great result of the-scientific method as applied to the idea of God, I think we shall find that the old distinction between the natural and the supernatural, between Nature and Supernature (if I may use the word), which has been ploughed so deeply into Christian thought, is fading-into indistinctness, and will ultimately disappear. The old abhorrence of matter which once made men even ashamed of having bodies, and created so profound a contempt for the whole material universe that it was counted blasphemy to attribute to God any immediate control of it, was the true root out or which this distinction grew. Nature was held to be matter, and matter was held to be undivine—or, as the phrases were, "inert," "brute," and "dead." This debased conception of matter, though pushed to extravagant lengths by Christian theology, is not confined to it. Even Plato, the "greatest of the Greeks, made it part of his philosophy.—" Those, therefore, who say that Plato thought that 'Evil was inherent in matter,' though expressing themselves loosely, express themselves on the whole correctly. Matter was page 10 the great Necessity which Intelligence fashioned. Because it was Necessity and unintelligent, it was Evil, for Intelligence alone can be good. [Lewes' History of Philosophy, I, 262.] So also Plutarch:—"Matter is that first being which is subst rate for generation, corruption, and all other alterations." [Plutarch's Morals, III, 122.] But the dynamical theory of matter, which reduces all material properties (extension alone excepted) to manifestations of force, dissipates the crude notion that matter is "inert" or "brute" or" dead." Difficult as it is to arrive at any exact definition of matter, the belief that it is the source of all evil holds no place in modern thinking; and the decay of this superstition is the decay of the ancient distinction between Nature and Supemature. The tendency of science is wholly in the direction of that conception of Nature which identifies it with all that is real; and if God is real, he can no longer be regarded as a reality outside of or above Nature. This I believe to be the necessary, though not as yet universally accepted, conclusion to which the growth of science is leading the human mind. I have been especially struck with this fact in reading Prof. Haeckers recent and most masterly work, the "Natürliche Schopfungsgeschichte." In this the protest is strong and pronounced against the idea of a "personal" (i.e. a supernatural) Creator or God; yet I find very little really in conflict with the idea of God to which I believe science is tending. Haeckel believes in the identity of all substance, advocates the doctrine of Monism, and declares himself willing to share the reproach of "pantheism" with Bruno and Spinoza, Lessing and Goethe. He even advocates the idea of a "spiritualization of matter" [die Beseelung der Materie]; and his work is a striking illustration of the modern reaction against all forms of supernatural ism.

The best thought of to-day regards Nature as the All. There is nothing outside of or above it, any more than there can be something outside of or above infinite Space. To insist that God is supernatural is to doom the idea of all Divine Being to a slow but inevitable extinction. Such appears to me to be the irrepealable decree of modern science. I accept the total abolition of the old dualism of Nature and Supemature as the first step in the advance of mankind from the theological to the scientific idea of God. This radical revolution or "change of base" in religious thinking is demanded by the substitution of the page 11 scientific for the Christian method. Its consequences must be indeed profound. But if any one declares that it is a suicidal step for religion to take,—that the abandonment of the distinction between Nature and Supernature is the death-warrant of all high faith in God,—I reply that it is a step from lower to higher thought, an advance from superstitious to educated faith. Not to take this step is to ensure the triumph of atheism in the not distant future. Such, at least, is my firm conviction. But even if I am mistaken in welcoming this step, I see no help for it. The educated world is actually taking it, and coming more and more to regard Nature as all in all—as containing within itself the totality of all being. Whether I am able or not to perceive the ultimate results of this passage from the Christian to the scientific standpoint, the passage is inevitable; and without taking counsel of fear whether the increase of human intelligence may not bring old truths into perpetual eclipse, I address myself to the nobler task of learning what new truths I can by this added light.