Pictures we have Seen of "The Unknown God."
Printed and Published for the Author By J. M. Smith Melbourne Lonsdale Street, West.1882
Pictures we have Seen of "the Unknown God."
We read that a Roman Governor asked "What is Truth?" but we do not read that he was answered. A very, very large majority of our race accept as truth, and without question, whatever they have been taught by their parents and teachers, and whatever passes fashionably current as truth in the time in which they live. But above this social surface of uniformity frequently appears a few erratic spirits, blessed, or as you may take it, cursed with an enquiring disposition, and who are constantly prying and repeating the question of Pilate "What is truth?"
History informs us that in one age the people embraced and were industriously indoctrinated with one set of views, which their descendents in a succeeding age cast aside and repudiated; so it is a matter of much doubt whether mankind will ever possess absolute truth. Pope wrote of happiness, "Man never is, but always to be, blessed," and of truth we may say, truth never is, but always to be, found. But whether found or not, there is no pursuit which furnishes the mind with so healthful, agreeable, and satisfactory exercise as the pursuit of truth. The man who boasts he has found the infallible truth is either a bigot or a braggart, most probably both; the earnest enquirer is neither, but merely a modest searcher, in whose mind truth is deified, and who, as he casts aside one after another the errors which have been woven into his mind, and the yet indistinct lines of page 4 his Deity begin to appear, can with perfect appropriateness repeat the words "Nearer my God to thee."
The most painful experiences of the inquiring mind are the unclosing of the wraps with which it has been enveloped—the unlearning what it has learnt. The process is to some extent disintegration. Long-seated error is like a cancer; it has many far-reaching fibrous roots closely interwoven with all there is in us of mind and feeling, and the rooting of it out cannot be done without much laceration and pain. But when rooted out, what a relief; what a nightmare has been broken, what a cloud dispersed, and the peace and quiet that follows—no perplexing questionings, no anxious doubts, no maddening terrors, but peace of mind from the consciousness of having been loyal to truth, and of having earnestly strained to approach it.
The man who abandons a life of crime or dissipation is justly regarded as a man morally and socially reformed, and the man who has seen his way to cast aside errors of opinion and belief must also stand in the same honourable and reformed position. Enquirers after truth are the world's reformers, those who follow them are the reformed, and those who cling to error are the unreformed.
When a man discards a long cherished error be generally does it with feeling—with a very distinct aversion, as if it were some poisonous reptile he had carried in his bosom and had only just discovered the fact. This avowed and initiating hostility is likely to remain with him for years, but time, the great softner of the asperities of life, at length brings quiet, and he is able to handle and study with a gratified, and even amused curiosity, the anatomy of the reptile he spurned from him—to him it no longer lives.
It is in such a frame of mind that I essay to glance at some of the pictures that have been sketched, and ideas that have been held and that are still held of God. Of God itself I shall not presume to speak. That is a subject far beyond my capacity, and any other man's. But a little of what men have conceived of God, and believed of God, and written of God I shall allude to and remark upon; and in illustration, the Bible and other writings, wherein a knowledge of what God is, is professed to be given, will supply the pictures.
Ideas of God have very much expanded since Genesis was page 5 written; indeed very much since some of us went to school. Almost all intelligent theists now believe that God pervades all matter and all space, and they carefully refrain from naming any locality as His special place of abode, This thestic idea is vast, and the small, simple and homely notions given of God in the first books of the Bible contrast strongly and even humourously with it, You cannot impose on any person who views this subject rationally by attempting to invest the ludicrous with solemnity, and if now the contemplation of some of these ancient pictures amuse, and fail to strike with awe, the change is due to the superior enlightenment of the age in which we live.
The ideas presented to us in these old pictures of God are mearly characteristics of humanity, and of a very plain kind of humanity too—I had written they are destitute of divinity, but what is divinity? They represent God as a kind of master man, who sometimes took care of men as if they were his property; sometimes felt pleased with them and promised them great things? sometimes was displeased with them and punished them; visited them, ate and drank with them; had His pet children whom He loved and favoured, and His step children whom He hated and tried to destroy. Altogether, the sketches are in many respects but the pictures of a boss man in a rude age, and the simplicity of the descriptions is often amusing.
Holbein, in one of his Bible cuts, represents the making of Eve. Adam is lying down and God stooping over him and lifting Eve out of Adam's side, while beasts, birds, reptiles, and even fish, crowd round to witness the operation. God is represented as an aged man, with a long beard, wearing a robe, a mantle, and kind of clerical crown. Holbein was no freethinking caricaturist, but no doubt a pious artist sketching what was considered a solemn subject, and believed then to be a literal fact; but now the description in Genesis of how woman was made we are to understand figuratively. Just so. How convenient! After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit they heard God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Just think of the God who made the universe walking in a garden. Just think of the God who made the sun waiting till the afternoon before He took His walk, because the sun He had made made it too hot a midday for outdoor exercise. Think, and then ask your- page 6 selves the question, is not this a man the writer is sketching? Then we read of God calling to Adam, learning the offence committed, cursing the serpent, cursing the ground, and afterwards softening a little, "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins and clothed them." Then we find the relation that God had sons who inter-married with the daughters of men, just as a squire's son will sometimes marry the daughter of a tenant. We read "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and they took them wives of all which they choose . . . . . .There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men, which were of old, men of renown." The idea that superior and famous men were begotten by the gods, is thus we see a very old one, and the assumption that Jesus was so begot is not an originality.
God is afterwards sketched as a disappointed man, thus—"And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to the heart, and He said I will destroy man," —. These are but the feelings and language of a man—a man fretting over and disappointed at his own work. Immediately thereafter he is sketched as a naval architect instructing Noah how to build the ark; giving him the length, breath, height, number of stories, and also the measurements of the window and door of the structure, just as the contractor for a large ship would give instructions to his foreman in the laying out of the work. The close familiarity represented as subsisting between God and man in these olden times is so human that it is often pleasing to read, even though we cannot read it without smiling. God was the influential friend of the family, and when he called he was a very welcome guest. We read Genesis chapter 18 "And the Lord appeared unto him (Abraham) on the plains of Mamre; and He sat in the tent door in the heat of the day, and He lift up his eyes and looked and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, and said, 'My Lord, if now I have found favour in Thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee from thy servant. Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will fetch a morsel of page 7 bread and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on; for therefore are ye come to your servant.' And they said, 'So do as thou hast said' And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.' And Abraham ran into the herd and fetched a calf, tender and good, and gave it unto a young man, and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter and milk and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree and they did eat. And they said unto him, 'Where is Sarah, thy wife?' And he said, 'Behold, in the tent.' And he said, 'I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it, in the tent door which was behind Him." Passing over the irregularity of the writer in representing the Lord sometimes as one and sometimes as three, there is much fidelity to human nature in this sketch. Abraham humbly obsequeous says, "My Lord if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away," and with kind and delicate attention he fetches the Lord water to wash his feet. And his hospitality is large; he speaks only of a morsel of bread, but he orders three measures of fine meal to be made into cakes, kills a calf, which, when dressed, he with butter and milk places before his guest under the tree and waits upon Him while he eats. The Lord with courtly condescention enquires of Abraham for his wife, who, having been baking the cakes and getting up the repast, is not presentable. The Lord telling Abraham that he should return and Sarah should have a son seems rather out of the way, yet an announcement that would flatter the old man. Sarah listening and hearing the whole conversation is so womanlike and her sceptical laughter at the idea of her bearing a son after she was ninety years of age was quite excusable. This tale shows the very neighbourly terms on which God is represented their to have lived with men; reveals also another leading characteristic of the God of that age—namely, the interest he took in childless wives, and there are several other instances recorded in which He took pity on such and blessed them with children. This is one grand healthy feeling which crops out frequently in these writings—the ardent desire for children—the strong belief in the blessings of population. Children were not then regarded page 8 as incumbrances either to the family or the State. Almost a reverse feeling has been growing in society since Malthas published his fears. I think the old feeling the more natural, and the new philosophy a deformed production of the artificial life we live.
This God of Genesis was also like man in having partialities. He had his favourites as most men have, but he did not show a high moral taste in His selection. In Jacob particularly there is hardly a good point, yet Paul writes he was chosen by God before his birth. David was bad enough. He had a habit of falling in love with other men's wives, and getting the men put out of the way that he might possess their wives; but he slew Goliath, was a good soldier, and a fair musician; whereas Jacob was a weak, fraudulent, cowardly scoundrel, and, after the wrestling match we read he had with God, a limping one. This wrestling match some would interpret in a figurative or spiritual sense, but it is plainly enough physical wrestling. Here is the passage, Genesis 38 and 24, "And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man wirh him until the breaking of the day. And when God saw that he prevailed not againt him, He touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh, and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint as he wrestled with Him. And God said, 'Let me go, for the day breaketh.' And Jacob said, 'I will not let thee go except thou bless me.' And God said, 'What is thy name?' And he said Jacob. And God said, 'Thy name shall be no more called Jacob but Israel, for as a Prince hast thou power with God and with men thou hast prevailed." And verse 32, "Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinews which shrank .... because God touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank." This last verse confirms the literalness of the wrestling. In the quotations I have put proper nouns where there are pronouns in the text, to make the sense more clear. It seems Jacob was getting the best in the encounter until his antagonist touched his thigh and put it out of joint. I confess I do not see the point here, but guess that this proceeding on the part of Jacob's opponent was not fair in wrestling. Then God asks to be let go, because the day breaketh. Now the story takes a spiritual aspect. It is generally understood that ghosts and other spirits cannot put in an appearance in sunlight. The ghost in Hamlet "faded page 9 on the crowing of the cock," and I think that generally there is no well authenticated story of a spirit having been seen by daylight. But to return to the wrestling story, it shows that the writer had no conception of God as being more than human when he represented him as engaged in wrestling, and what a blunder the writer makes in representing God as beaten in the match.
The story in Exodus of how God acted with Pharaoh, if it is not a burlesque, depicts God as a very unreasonable sort of person. Pharoah is repeatedly punished with plagues to compel him to consent to let the Israelites go, he repeatedly consents and God as repeatedly hardens Pharoah's heart and causes him to withdraw his consent, and this farce is gone through over and over again, till Pharoah and his host are drowned in the Red Sea. Pharoah is held up throughout this prolonged drama as a very wicked person for refusing to let the people go, the writer at the same time stating that God hardened Pharoah's heart that he should not let the people go. How any writer could write, or translator pass over, such moral incongruities seems astonishing. Throughout this business Moses is represented on very intimate terms with God. When God first appears to him from the burning bush, Moses is not alarmed, but says, "I will now turn aside and see this great sight why the bush is not burnt." He did not prostrate himself, nor was he overwhelmed with awe; indeed God had to caution him, "Draw not nigh hither, put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." Then God makes a great many promises of what he will do for the Israelites. How prolific in promises and in threats, in blessings and in cursings these writers represent God to have been, but how very deficient in performance. The Israelites may have routed a few tribes, but what nations did they ever conquer? What territory did they acquire? Were they not several times thoroughly conquered and made slaves of? As a nation have they not long been extnict? Only existing as a race. What a fulfilment of promises!
Moses and Aaron go to Pharoah and demand that he should let the Israelites go three days journey into the desert to sacrifice to God Pharoah thought they had been too leniently dealt with seeing they were asking holidays, and ordered that their tasks should be made heavier; and then page 10 the people grumbled against Moses for having made their condition worse than it had been. Then we read, "And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, 'Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? Why is it that thou hast sent me . . . . . .For since I came to Pharoah to speak in thy name he hath done evil to this people, neither hast thou delivered thy people at all." This is plain indignant talk, such as one man would address to another by whom he had been humbugged; but with our modern ideas of God it would be impiety to address God in that manner.
At Sinai, the holy mount as it is called, the pictures of God become invested with very imposing terrors. There are thunders and lightnings, and earthquakes, and smoke, and fire, and a thick cloud, and the voice of a trumpet sounding long and waxing louder and louder. This is the record of the first trumpet, and we are promised a last one. No one is to go "up into the mount or touch the border of it. . . . Whosoever toucheth the mount shall surely be put to death. . . . Let not the priests break through to come up unto the Lord lest he break through upon them." "Lest he break through upon them!!" God is here likened to a wild and dangerous animal. The old and pleasing relations of intimacy between God and man are now rubbed out. God is no longer the friend of the family with whom they ate, and drank, and talked, and argued, and wrestled, but some terrible thing enveloped in cloud, and smoke, and fire, and speaking long and loud with a trumpet.
It is after the drowning of Pharoah and his host that we first hear God called a man of war. Moses, in his song of triumph, sings, "The Lord is a man of war, the Lord is His name." From that time we read that the Israelites engaged in wars of extermination at the command of God, but these horrible pictures I do not intend here to exhibit.
Associated with nearly all religions is the idea that God requires a house to dwell in. Men have always pictured God like themselves, and when they so far advanced as to construct houses and experience the comfort of houses, it dawned on them that it was their duty to provide God with the comforts of a dwelling also; and hence we find that ponderous and costly temples, mosques, cathedrals, churches, synagogues, —., have been erected for His accommodation. It was in the wilderness we read the Israelites made their page 11 first essay in this direction. First, they enclosed an oblong space, 150 feet by 75 feet, with linen curtains about eight feet high. Towards one end of this enclosure was another enclosure 45 feet by 15 feet and 15 feet high. The two sides and one end of this were of boards, and the front or entrance was curtained. This enclosure was covered in with cloth, and divided into two with a screen, and in the inner apartment was kept what was called the ark, a wooden gilded box about the size of an emigrants chest. This box contained the two slabs of stone on which were written the Ten Commandments, Aaron's Rod, and a pot of Manna. It is not clear whether God dwelt inside this box, or rested over it, but it seems to have been a settled belief that God resided about the box somewhere. From the description given, the whole arrangement seems to have been very portable, and as easily moved about as the properties of a circus. We read in 1st Samuel that the Philistines had an engagement with the Israelites; the Israelites had lost 4,000 men and were getting the worst of it, when the elders bethought them to carry the ark out into the camp, and when it reached the camp all Isreal shouted, and the Philistines heard the shouting and were afraid, and said, "God is come into the camp," but they plucked up courage and smote of the Israelites thirty thousand footmen, and took the ark of God and carried it away and placed it in the house of Dagon their god, and by the side of Dagon; but in the morning Dagon was found fallen down and broken to pieces. The men of Ashdod, where this is stated to have occurred, were smitten with disease, so they carried the ark to Gath, the men of Gath, also smitten, removed it to Ekron, and they were also smitten. Then the Philistines yoked two milk cows into a new cart and carted the pestilential box back to the Israelites with a lot of golden presents. The Levites took charge of both, and placed the ark on a great stone, but some of the men of that place—Bethshemish—looked into the ark of the Lord, and he smote of the people fifty thousand and three score and ten men. This was for being of an enquiring turn of mind. The dangerous box was then put into the house of Abinadob where it remained for twenty years, when David took to move it on another new cart, this one drawn by oxen. The oxen, or the roughness of the road shook it, and a man named Uzza, very con- page 12 siderately to prevent it from being upset, "put forth his hand to the ark of the Lord and took hold of it, and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzza, and God smote him there for his error, and there he died by the ark of God. . . . And David was displeased, because the Lord had made a breach upon Uzza." "Made a breach upon Uzza!" The same idea as was expressed when prohibiting the people from crowding upon Mount Sinai, "lest he break through upon them," representing God as a caged or restrained dangerous monster. In consequence of Uzza having been killed "David was afraid of the Lord that day" and would not remove the ark unto him in the City of David, but carried it aside into the house of Obed-edom the Gittire." The ark brought a blessing to the house of Obed-edom, and when David heard of that he brought the box to his own city. We read that shortly after this David had rest from all his enemies, and dwelling comfortably in a a house of cedar he thought the Lord should be better lodged than in a tent. He had formed the intention of building a house or temple for the Lord. But the Lord, by Nathan a prophet, sends him the following message, "Shalt thou build me a house to dwell in. ... I have not dwelt in any house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up out of Egypt, even to this day, but have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle. In all the places wherein I have walked. . . spake I a word. . . saying, why build ye not me a house of cedar?" This is an exceedingly simple and amusing communication, and the writer who gave it as a communication from God must have had a very humble idea of God. It in effect says, since I left Egypt, though I have only lived in a tent, have I ever grumbled about the accommodation. The result was that David was not to build a house for God, but his son was.
When Soloman built this house, and it was finished, the ark was carried into the holy place, and when the priests had returned from it, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, and Soloman said, "The Lord said he would dwell in the thick darkness." Did Soloman mean that the subject of God is one thoroughly shrouded and obscure? He goes on to say, "I have surely built thee a house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in for ever." Here his expressions become childish, but further on his intellect rising above puerile page 13 notions he writes these remarkable words, "And will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee, how much less this house that I have builded."
The book of Job contains some grander notions of God than are commonly found in the Bible; and the grandest of these is where the writer confesses how little can be known of God. "Canst thou by searching find out God, canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection. It is high as heaven what canst thou do, deeper than hell what canst thou know." This is a lofty rebuke to all who pretend to know or even conjecture God's nature and attributes.
Isaiah, who is sometimes poetical, represents God as of a tender and pitying disposition, and as engaged in an humble occupation. "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young." With Evangilican Christians in our day this passage is a favourite, while the exterminating mandates issued by the God of the book of Joshua are kept in the shade. It is pleasant to note that it is so, and it is an evidence of progress. But in the next verse Isaiah describes God as an immense giant. "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, and meted the heaven out with a span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance." A few verses further on, "It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in." This is what is called poetry. The imagery is extravagant enough, but some of the feats ascribed to God have been done by the scientists of our day. They have not only weighed the mountains, but they have weighed the earth itself. They have weighed also the other planets, and they have weighed the sun, and, what is more, they have placed before the world the comparative weights.
There is a description of the person of God in the book of Revelations, which, though more impious than any other, I cannot omit. St. John, as he is called, reports that he saw in a vision, "One like unto the Son of man, clothed in a garment down to the foot, and girt about the hips with a page 14 golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were as a flame of fire, and his feet like unto fine brass as if they burned in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters. And He had in His right hand seven stars, and out of His mouth went a two-edged sword, and His countenance was as the sun shining in his strength." Whatever instruction might have been in the long ago extracted from such a vision or dream I know not, but were I to dream such I should conclude I had been lying on my back and had nightmare, and would immediately turn on my side and seek refreshing sleep.
"That even when he prayed,
He turned from grisly saints and martyrs hairy,
To the sweet portraits of the Virgin Mary."
The current Christian idea of God is that it is a spirit which manages and directs all the infinity of details in the universe. The uninformed Christians believe that God personally superintends everything as a foreman does the operations in a workshop, and makes such alterations in the manipulation and progress of events, as he finds desirable. And full of this idea, these simple people keep constantly crying and praying to God to alter His treatment of human affairs, and adopt another treatment which they press upon Him. Nor is this all, they believe that God does frequently alter His plans and adopt theirs at their solicitation. If there were not such a belief there would be no plausability in prayer. We read "Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find; for every one that asketh receiveth, and every one that seeketh findeth." It is believed that God knows every page 15 one's individual affairs and what each stands in need of; but it is also held, that He must be asked to supply these needs, when, if he sees fit, they are supplied. We have all read of the poor family without a morsel of bread for breakfast—the one pious boy in the family who knelt and prayed for bread—the well-to-do neighbour sitting down to a good breakfast being struck with the thought that the poor people over the way might not have a bit of bread, her sending her little girl over with a loaf in her apron, and knocking at the poor people's door, delivering the loaf just as the pious boy rises from his knees. We are asked to believe in this story first, that God personally heard the pious boy's prayer, and next, that God put it into the head of the good neighbour to send the loaf.
There would be good common sense in praying if prayers were so answered, but they are not so answered, every one knows that; and if you complain that your prayers are not granted, you are told you may not have prayed properly, that God in His inscrutable wisdom has seen fit to reject your petition, or that you should, besides praying, have used some practical means to obtain the object. This last relieves God from all responsibility in human affairs, and intimates that man is his own providence. In cases of pent up grief, piety, joy, anger, or other emotions, no doubt prayer may be a great relief; just as a good fit of crying is to some women, and an outburst of swearing to some men, but otherwise it is of no practical value whatever. Voltaire has the following remarks on prayer :—"The designs of God exist from all eternity. If the object prayed for be conformable to His immutable will it must be perfectly useless to request of Him the very thing which He has determined to do. If He is prayed to for the reverse of what He has determined to do, He is prayed to be weak, fickle, and inconstant; such a prayer implies that this is thought to be His character and is nothing better than ridicule or mocking of Him. You either request of Him what is just and right, in which case He ought to do it, and it will actually be done, without any solicitation, which in fact shows distrust of His rectitude; or what you ask is unjust and then you insult Him. You are either worthy or unworthy of the favour you implore; if worthy, He knows it better than you do yourself, if unworthy you commit an additional crime by requesting that page 16 which you do not merit." These are grand ideas of God compared with which the ideas commonly held are mean and despicable. And these are the ideas and works of Voltaire, on whose name and character ignorant Sunday School teachers, and also ignorant budding local preachers, have been in the habit of throwing dirt, and thinking with a gratified conscience that they have thus been doing God a service.
"Not more than others I deserve,
But God hath given me more,
For I have food while others starve,
Or beg from door to door."
"Lord I ascribe it to Thy grace,
And not to chance, as others do,
That I was born of Christian race,
And not a heathen, nor a Jew."
"God quickly stopped their wicked breath,
And sent two raging bears,
Who tore them limb from limb to death,
With blood and groans and tears.
Great God how terrible art Thou, —."
These songs may be "divine," for we have seen that the character of the Divine is very uncertain, but they are not "moral," and whoever recommends them "for the use of children" is utterly unworthy to be entrusted with the care of children. Yet these songs are useful in the illustration of this subject, conveying as they do in plain language the ideas now commonly held upon God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell, and kindred subjects.
There is another idea of God as the manager of the affairs of universal nature, which has lately been gaining ground and is now accepted by many intelligent professing Christians. The idea is that God does not manage by personal superintendence and inspection, but by means of law or laws. That He has fixed upon the nature of things certain inflexible and immutable conditions or laws, and upon these conditions or laws the whole details of life and motion operate, and that He has committed and left the universe to the operation of these laws and virtually abdicated. For all practical purposes this idea of God is simply Atheism. When we come thoroughly to believe that God does not personally manage the world we cease to regard Him personally. We cease to fear Him, love Him, importune Him with prayers, or flatter Him with praises. He is removed, set back into the thick darkness, the court of mystery. We now feel the necessity of consulting the laws and obeying the laws. Life becomes a matter of patientful care and practical work. Laws will neither be moved with prayers nor flattered into partiality with praise; they are cold, pitiless and insensible. You may be young, pure, beautiful, intelligent and good, and yet by the unintentional violation of some law you are swept away. The violation may not even have been yours, but that of some progenitor, generations before you. Nature's laws or God's laws in nature—the meanings are the same—have no partiality, no mercy, no forgiveness. It is an old idea, no doubt it is in Watt's songs, that God keeps a book in which all breaches of His laws are recorded against the culprit. Nature also keeps a faithful record, never winks at any offence, never rubs out a crime. If you want inflexible, impartial, unvarying justice Nature administers it. If you break a law of health, a law of morals, a law of good taste, the punishment is just as certain as the offence. There is no escaping it, no whitewash- page 18 ing, no absolution, no substitution, no cleansing in the blood of the Lamb. The offence has been committed and retribution will most inevitably follow.
But it does not follow because there is no forgiveness there is no hope; because the past cannot be called back and purged from error, the future cannot be bright and pure; because we cannot undo the evil we have done, we cannot henceforth do the good. Such a doctrine would drive humanity to despair. Vitality in nature is eternal, so also is hope. "While there is life there is hope." They are a pair, the one supports the other. The misused opportunities of the past are for ever gone, and we suffer for their misuse, but we are not shut out from using the opportunities now and to come. And though in "turning a new leaf," and making the best of a remnant of life, the harvest may not be large, it is much better than adding to an already long calendar of error and sorrow. This is one grand point in Christianity, no one is regarded as too debased but that he may be lifted, or too far gone but that he may be cured. Still though it is of the utmost importance to preach hope to the erring when they shall cease to err, we must keep before the minds of all the retributive character of the laws of nature.
We have heard much of the fear of God, the fear of hell, the fear of the policeman and the civil law as incentives to good life, but the fear of Nature's laws is by far the most thorough and wholesome check against erring. These laws look down upon us, and into us, with a thousand eyes; note every thought, word, disposition and action, and reward or punish accordingly. This idea thoroughly grounded in the mind is the grand, "Thou God seest me," attends us closely in every walk in life; is with us when we rise from bed in the morning until we return to it in the evening; and we feel that the thousand conditions on which happiness depends exist within us and surround us, and that the business of life is carefully to study these, and intelligently navigate our way.
Some thinkers who accept the supremacy of law in the universe as a solution of the principle which governs things, profess to discover in the administration the qualities of a loving father towards our race. This quality I have failed to discover. If we consider God as the author of the laws of Nature then certainly we must admit that generatively He is page 19 our father, but there is no evidence that He has shown any regard or affection for man over the rest of the universe animate or inanimate. The conditions of existence are just as favourable to one animal as to another—as favourable to animals which prey upon man as to those which contribute to his comfort. Man has the instinct of self-preservation, and all experience proves that that is his only providence. What is this instinct, but that force with which every animal, every plant, every atom, and every globule is endowed; and under the influence of which, each struggles to repel what is hostile and assimilate what is friendly to existence. Man obeys the same instinct; if he is stronger than the existences he has to contend with, he lives and flourishes, if weaker he succumbs and dies.
Some who have adopted the law idea of God may commiserate those who can only entertain the purely personal one, yet they may be, and no doubt many are, very happy in their superstitions. The inoculation and growth of a new branch of thought amongst the people is generally slow. Thought in many respects resembles water. Sometimes it is as a running stream hurrying on to the wide ocean, at others it lingers serenely in a quiet bay, at others again it settles into a stagnant pool, and once or again in an age or a century it moves like a tidal wave and sweeps all obstructions before it. It is a matter very little of our determining which of these conditions of thought has us in possession; whether like the serene surface of the sheltered bay we merely reflect the landscape by day and the stars by night; whether like the green scum on the stagnant pool we merely vegitate; whether like the moving river we press onward to the boundless ocean of truth, or like the tidal wave produce devastation and radical change. In any case we are but the creatures of the circumstances upon which our lives have been cast, our own individualities being also circumstances amongst the others. It is something to be even a circumstance, and it is surely better to be a circumstance of the river kind of thought than to be a circumstance of the stagnant pool, and is better even to be a drop of that moving river than merely a chip or a straw carried along with it. It is only honesty that those whose thoughts belong to the living moving stream should no longer linger about the margins of the stagnant pools, but paddle out into the current. The man page 20 or woman, who by the habit of attending church, or by any other act, makes a profession of believing what he or she does not believe, is a professional lie; and, alas! it is too true that in this boasted day of freedom many an excellent and intelligent man, over-burdened with caution and timidity, feels that he cannot without sacrifice and pecuniary martyrdom profess what he believes. Our churches and chapels, by intolerance in many forms, offer a handsome worldly premium for insincere profession—a reward for belying conscientious convictions—a bribe for lying.
Many speculations and opinions may be entertained of God. It may be held that an intelligent power controls matter, or that matter possesses intelligence of itself; or it may be held, that the universe does not exhibit intelligence. It may be held that harmony exists in nature, and that such proves that a one paramount force governs all, or it may be held that there is a constant conflict between forces, and that the government of the universe is not a despotic unity, but a representative government determined by the balance of power. It may be held that God is a kind and sympathetic father, or that He is as unimpressible as the silent stars and as destitute of feeling as an iceberg. And if a man holds any of these views, who is the man who should hinder him from expressing it. If a man has a thought and that thought has taken shape, form, and the dress of language, one of the sweetest privileges of life is the liberty to express it, and express it without moral or social prejudice. The liberty to publish our thoughts is the protector and guardian of every other liberty. Thought is a mental growth which should be allowed to grow—throw out its leaves and unfold its blossoms in its own manner. If we only possessed fairness and charity enough the many varieties of speculative thought would add to the charm and interest of mixing in the speculative world, just as a walk through a garden of many coloured and many perfumed flowers is more pleasing than to pass through a field of plants of one flower.
The point of supreme interest of every man and woman is the life he or she lives. If we would be happy we must not trifle with but attend strictly to the conditions of health. If we would be happy we must fulfil our family and social duties with considerate attention and cheerful and affec- page 21 tionate kindness. If we would be happy we must preserve an unblemished reputation for honesty, industry and civility, and in short must harmonise our conduct with those ideas of moral rectitude and enlightened beneficence our minds have deified. Beliefs are not now esteemed of so much importance as they were in past times. It is confessed that creeds do not exercise that influence on conduct it was once thought they did. Many men are now good in spite of their creeds—contrary to the logical inferences from their creeds. The men are better than their creeds. May it continue so and improve.
"For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight,
His can't be wrong whose life is in the right."