Monday, December 19, 2016

A fool's paradise

That enough has been said about the Plurality of Worlds, is an opinion in which we most cordially agree. That there are seasons in which what might otherwise be excusable criticism becomes wanton brutality, most people would instinctively feel. But the Times chooses a worn-out subject; of controversy, and a moment of the deepest personal affliction, as affording a fitting opportunity for charging one of the most eminent men of the day with giving the lie to the Gospel and insulting the faith of the Christian, and with having written as “during and mischievous a page" as has proceeded from an “sceptic during the last hundred years." In an article published not Wednesday, and entitled Worlds in the Sky, these malignant insults are inflicted upon the author of the Essay of the Plurality of Worlds. “We have read,” says our contemporary, the “Essay of the Plurality of Worlds with patience and reflection, and our conclusion is, that with regard to its views of the starry heavens and their destiny, it may be bound up with Wilkins’s Project for Reaching the Moon, and, with regard to its injurious influence on the Christian faith, with the Vestiges of Creation." What is patience in one man is haste in another—what is reflection in one man is rashness in another. The Worlds in the Sky appears to us to have demanded about as much of those qualities as a muddle-brained and over-worked country vicar would bestow on a sermon commenced late on Saturday night, and much less than would be expected of any fifth-form boy at Eton in his weekly theme. The writer begins by entirely misunderstanding the views of the book which he controverts. He goes on to make concessions to his antagonist's argument which quite destroy the force of his own, and which reduce the questions at issue between them to ludicrously small dimensions. He concludes with a theory of his own, which puts the most sacred subsets in such grotesque contiguity with the most extreme absurdities that it is hardly possible to discuss it without apparent impiety.

“The object of the Essay,” says the Reviewer, "is to prove the absence of intellectual life under such an economy as the planets and stars present." This sentence is spun out, by the help of a great deal of that bastard smartness with which the Times has infected leading articles, over three-quarters of a column; and it is combated, and indeed refuted, by the obvious arguments by which such an assertion would be refuted if it ever were made. It is unfortunate for the enjoyment of this easy triumph, that the author of the Essay Of the Plurality of Worlds never maintained any such position. What he did say upon the subject is by this time so notorious that we are almost ashamed to repeat it again. He maintained that man, such as we know him, could not live in the planets, and that the burden of showing that some other intellectual being, of a different organization, does live there, lies on those who affirm it.

The Essayist’s object in advancing this theory, says his critic, is the glorification of man. Man is glorified by proving that he is the only intelligent being in the universe. “There is,” thinks the Reviewer, “a sort of epic grandeur and harmony in this view of man's majesty and privileges." He “accepts the hypothesis" of the dignity of man, but he cannot agree “to the conditions which the Essayist considers essential to it.” He cannot admit that the fixed stars are uninhabited—he will not “lay waste the sky that the earth may be magnified;" but he has certain peculiar views of his own upon the subject, too. He does not much care about the sun. "We might dispense with inhabitants in the sun. The sun has his own work; a work, how various, magnificent, and unbroken! He guides, illuminates, and feeds the kingdoms that surround him."

After calling the sun “the Shadow of God," and several other things, such as a “missionary," an "artist,” and a “physician," he disposes of the moon in a very few words, as having “her part in the same mission of love and usefulness." Upon the sun and moon, then, the Essayist and his critic are agreed. The Essayist does not think that they are inhabited, because he sees no particular reason for thinking that they are, and the Reviewer because he has two particular reasons for thinking that they are not-viz., that man is thereby glorified, and that they have quite enough to do to light up the planets. Two steps further they go in common. They agree in doubting whether the planets are inhabited; the Essayist, for numerous scientific reasons, of which we need not speak —the Reviewer, because he thinks that “the dark ship is cheered by them." They agree also about some of the fixed stars. So far it is not easy to see where the difference between the two lies. The one argues well, and the other ill—the one writes like a man of taste and learning, the other, like an Exeter Hall Boanerges, trying his hand for the first time at a leading article—but neither of them sees any reason to assign rations inhabitants to such of the heavenly bodies as we have any opportunities of examining closely.  With respect to the more remote fixed stars, the Essayist maintains a discreet silence, as he knows next to nothing about them; but the Reviewer is not so prudent. He is quite willing to depopulate the sun, the moon, the planets, and a good many of the stars for the glorification of man; “but when the argument is carried into remote space, and myriads of stars, sun-like in glory and system " (the existence of which is mere matter of conjecture,) “are said" (which they are not) “to scatter light unseen as field-flowers drop bloom in untrodden paths,” the Reviewer can stand it no longer. “ Our moral sense seems to be outraged and abashed—"a line must be drawn somewhere, and the Reviewer draws it there. "If they were not created for our sakes, is the remark of Bentley, it is evident they were not; formed for their own—” therefore they are inhabited. We think this is the most extraordinary argument we ever happened to full in with. Stars of which the very existence is problematical, must be inhabited, because we cannot see them and know nothing about them, and because those which we do know something about are probably not inhabited; and if you do not believe this, and believe moreover that the stars in question are inhabited by angels, you "give the lie to the Gospel,” and “insult the faith of the Christian." This is the doctrine of editorial infallibility with a vengeance. If you are not prepared to go quite so far as the Times in your opinions about the population of such of the fixed stars as are too far off to be seen with Lord Rosse's telescope—for in this lies the whole difference between the Essayist and his Reviewer—neither the highest eminence, ecclesiastical, literary, and scientific, not the most grievous personal afflictions, will save you from being denounced as an enemy of the Christian faith.

It must not, however, be supposed that the Times is without a theology, or rather cosmology, of its own, and a very remarkable one it is. After quoting from the Essayist two passages, in the first of which he says that there may very possibly be in existence “other spheres of the Divine government than this earth—" and in the second, “that it would be very rash, and unwarranted by religion, to place those extra-human spheres of Divine government in the planets and stars, and that, inasmuch as the Bible teaches that angels are ‘ministering spirits,’ it is improbable that they should live in the stars, because if they did, they would not be likely to take a greater interest in us than we do in the inhabitants of Jupiter or Sirius"—the Reviewer observes that “no sceptic during the last hundred years has written a more daring or more mischievous page." The nature of the offence given is stated by the Times as follows:—
‘The Jews, in our Lord's time, were accustomed to make a threefold division of the heavens—(1) atmosphere, (2) starry firmament, (3) the dwelling-place of God. To one or other of these regions Scripture always assigns the homes of angels. The dream of Jacob in the Old Testament, and the vision of the shepherds in the New, will recur to the memory. There is no mention of any Divine form appearing to man which is not described as descending upon earth, or having its abode in heaven. It will not be denied by any Christian that the Lord of angels returned to them. Whither, then, did he go? After He had led His disciples to Olivet and was parted from them, we are told by St. Luke, in words singularly clear and emphatic, that “they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up.” And if we open the letter to the Ephesians, we find St. Paul saying that He ascended “far above all heavens" —went, that is, into the remoter and the more glorious country of the Divine Presence. But if He to whom angels ministered ascended among the stars, they who minister to Him must abide there also. Accordingly, the Bible places angels in the sky; the Essayist affirms that science refuses a site for their dwelling, either in the planets or the stars. The Bible promises to us their sympathy; the Essayist declares that we are as likely to know what angels are doing as they are to feel and care about us. The Bible describes them as ministering spirits; the Essayist derides the office as "a mixture altogether incongruous and incoherent.”
We think that upon the whole this is the most absurd passage that ever was written, for not only is every se crate member of it false, but each member is inconsistent with the rest. One minor error, indeed, consistently pervades the whole—namely, the notion that the earth is flat and lies at the bottom of creation, and that the three heavens go up above it like a flight of stairs. If the Times does not mean to affirm this, the whole argument falls to the ground; for if we accept the opinion of all the world except Dr. Cullen--that the Copernican system is true, the words "up” and "down," “ascending" and “descending," are simply unmeaning when applied to the relations of the stars. It is as ludicrous to speak of the stars being above the earth as to speak of England as being above New Zealand. As for the opinions of the Jews in the time of our Lord about the heavens, we are, and are willing to remain, totally ignorant. Thus much, however, is matter of notoriety, that of all the Rabbinical superstitions, none were wilder, more unauthorized, or more distinctly repudiated by St. Paul than those which refer to angels. The only thing that we do know about the Jewish notions of angels is that they were especially apt, upon those subjects, to be puffed up by their fleshly minds, and to intrude into things which they had not seen. We may, however, mention that the assertion which the Times numbers (3), is simply blasphemous. The subject is not one which can be discussed in a newspaper, but if any one will compare that statement with the first article of the Church of England, he will understand our meaning. We have not room to expose all the absurdities of this monstrous passage. Perhaps the most startling is the quotation of the “singularly emphatic" language of the Acts—“as He went up." In the authorized version, up is printed in italics. Probably this is why the Times calls the passage “singularly emphatic." We thought every child know that the italics in the authorized version are used to denote words which are not in the original. If the Reviewer would ask some one who knows Greek enough to construe the passage for him, he would learn that πορενομένου αίτού means—“as He was going away," not “as He was moving at right angles to a tangent at the earth's surface." The quotation from the Ephesians is very nearly as absurd. As the absurdity is one which can hardly be reverentially exposed, we will merely suggest that to speak of “the remoter and more glorious country of the Divine Presence" is to make void, by a miserable Talmudical tradition, one of the most distinctive and most wonderful doctrines of the Old and New Testaments : “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there, and if I go down into hell, thou art there also." If we were not dealing with a writer for whom no knowledge is too elementary , we should be ashamed to point the obvious truth that the Bible speaks of “ascending,” and of "descending," of “up," and “down,” as a way of describing the impressions of sense, as we all speak of sun-rise and sun-set.

We must not, however, suppose that the Times can be consistent even in absurdity. Suppose it were true (which it is not) that “the Bible placed angels in the sky,” which is the point that our contemporary labours so earnestly to prove, would it follow that they live in the planets or stars? Clearly not. If they live “far above all heavens in the sky," they certainly do not live in Sirius or Jupiter; and if so, the Reviewer and the Essayist agree, and the former, according to his own showing, “gives the lie to the Gospel, and insults the faith of the Christian."

“The Bible," says the Reviewer, “places angels in the sky. The Essayist affirms that science refuses a site for their dwelling, either in the planets or the stars." Both statements are false, but if they were both true, where is the inconsistency? "The Bible," says the Reviewer, "promises to us their sympathy. The Essayist declares that we are as likely to know what angels are doing, as they are to feel any care about us." The Essayist's argument quoted just above by the Reviewer is, that inasmuch as angels do sympathize with us, it is not likely that the should live in a place where they could not do so. "The Bible," says the Reviewer, “describes them as ministering spirits—the  Essayist derides the office as a mixture altogether incongruous and incoherent." The Essayist’s words, quoted by the Reviewer, are—“A belief in the Divine ministrations committed to such beings cannot be connected with our physical and astronomical views of the nature of the stars and planets, without making a mixture," &c. Does the Reviewer mean that no man can believe in a spiritual being, unless he knows exactly where and how it acts?

Absurd and offensive as all this is, what follows is still more so. The doctrine of the Ascension is appealed to—for what purpose it is not easy to see. “ We have before us the assurance of inspiration that 'a Body which had walked, which had spoken, which had eaten, which had been handled,’ is now present among or beyond the stars; living, breathing, moving. The Reviewer forgets a very remarkable text to which we will draw his attention:--"But some man will say, how are the dead raised up, and with what bod do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die. It is sown a natural body. It is raised a spiritual body. The first man is of the earth, earthy. The second man is the Lord from heaven."  The doctrine of the glorified body is utterly unknown to this writer.

The Reviewer would do well to remember that profanity often takes the dress of piety. The subject which he so coarsely introduces in order to ring a cruel and false charge against one of the most eminent and estimable men of his day, involves one of the deepest of the Christian mysteries. What was the nature of that spiritual body which passed through closed doors, which mysteriously appeared and mysteriously withdrew from human sight, is not revealed to us. To say that “it is present beyond or among the stars, living, breathing, moving,” is a simply gratuitous piece of irreverence. It is a subject which pious men will contemplate with awe, and which men of the commonest discretion will pass by in respectful silence. To handle such a topic with coarse familiarity and assurance is hardly less offensive than to bedaub it with that fulsome familiarity with which the article closes:--
‘The present essay (we are told) has a very devotional look. But when we find the author describing the planets as "water and vapour packed into rotary masses," or “neatly wound into bales," we miss the style and the idiom of the reverent mind. The essayist may appeal to his recognition of the Cross and the King, of the work which He did, and the reward which He promises; but will he say that the doctrine of angelic ministry is not impugned, that the populousness of the heavens is not questioned , or that the going up of a Body into the sky [what an elegant equivalent for the Ascension] is not by implication disbelieved?’
In other words, you may believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith; but unless you write "in the style and idiom of the reverent mind," your words will be twisted into theological constructive treason. The surprising impudence of imputing to the Essayist a denial of two doctrines which he expressly affirms, and an implied denial of a third which we doubt not he devoutly believes, is only equalled by the impudence of making the “populousness of the heavens" an article of the Christian Faith. The bigots of the fifteenth century would have persecuted those who affirmed such a doctrine, for exactly the same reason which makes this individual bigot of the nineteenth century slander one who dares to inquire into a common opinion; for in the eyes of both it is equally true that
  ‘To join faith and sense
  Upon an pretence
Is heretic damnable error. ‘
We cannot conclude without adverting to the “style and idiom" of which the reviewer makes so much. He gives us some specimens of it, which do certainly surprise us considerably. Qu’allait-il faire dans cette galère? The slim eloquence which this writer so characteristically considers the only pious “style and idiom," has an irresistibly comic effect in the columns of the Times. “We shall still trust in the rejoicing of spiritual love over the tears of the penitent." Shall we really? We are not used to it. “We shall still gaze skyward in our sorrow." Of course we shall. When we are charged, for example, with falsifying our Own Correspondent's despatches in order to make them agree with our leading articles, we shall treat the accusation with the contempt it deserves, and “gaze skyward." “We accept the view that any portion of the starry realms may in due season be visited and explored." No doubt Mr. W.H. Russell will be perfectly ready to act as “Our Correspondent," and let the public now all that is interesting on the subset. In coelom jusseris ibit. “We shall still believe the heavens to be peopled, while we believe the Bible to be true and the apostles to be witnesses." Is that such a very long date? Those who believe the Bible to be true should in aside evil-speaking, noisy pretention, false patriotism, meddlesome impertinence. They should not compliment a judge on Wednesday, and blame him for the very same thing on Monday. They should not throw out imputations on a general which they are too careless to verify, and then retract them without apology, and then deny that they ever made them. They should not violate the privacies of royal life and thereby sow dissension between great nations. They should abstain from slandering a pious and learned man on the day of his wife's funeral, and in cultivating these negative virtues they would be more usefully employed than in speculating about the local habitations of the angels, and the site of the many mansions.

Saturday Review, December 29, 1855.

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