Untheological Reflections

I

THE years sweep over us — inexorably time eliminates the individual. As we grow old a cumulative sorrow disrupts the ties of blood, of love and friendship, that garlanded the passing years and made them precious.

One by one they go, until we follow. Millions have gone before; millions will come and go. However wisely we grow old, however strong the discipline of life may forge

our hearts, eventually we, as units, disappear. And yet, uninterruptedly, the thread of living things continues; with its beginnings deep in the dim past, handed along through myriad forms and individuals, through us — perhaps — to something higher.

Laboriously we trace our linkage with the past, and, hopefully, from this deduce an upward evolution. Beyond this, for the time, reason alone is helpless. The larger comprehension, the source, the goal and purpose, are beyond us. We have not reached the point where we may hope to answer, yet we have learned to question. Of all the living things on earth, mankind alone is born a ‘why’ upon its lips. This ‘why’ has been the source of science and religion.

No conflict should exist between the two. The problems of the one cannot be solved by methods of the other. Science cannot extend to primal cause. The indestructibility of matter gives no clue to its beginnings, and tracing energy through all its transformations inevitably leads ‘to an initial point at which it all existed, unchangeably determined for all time.’

In spite of this, as we increase in knowledge and the amazing order is revealed by which the laws of nature interlock, we cannot fail to gain conviction of a plan, continuous and purposeful, which we, at present, cannot comprehend. But less and less we question its existence.

From Aristotle on, whenever scientists have given thought to origin and purpose, their speculations always led to this: The truths which science gathers represent the raw materials of philosophy. It charts the wonders of the world about us, investigates the worlds about the world, and, peering inward, turns its own perceptions to search the mind with which they are perceived. Yet by its probing nothing is created. All it observes has always been. But slowly, thread by thread, it lifts the veil from marvelous coordinations; reveals adjustments joining substances and forces, an order and a plan we cannot, as comprehension grows, accept as chance. This, in the end, will be the contribution which science has to offer to religion.

A generation past, when Huxley wrote, his conflict was not truly with religion. The quarrel he and his Darwinian band engaged in was with superstition. To attack the supernatural to-day would be to ride one’s lance into a windmill. For, since those days, science has gained velocity with mass. And those who understand, they also know that its amazing revelations are not a whit more easy to explain than are the superstitions they destroy. The miracles of yesterday become, to-day, the natural ends of calculable causes. But are they any the less miraculous?

II

From that time when Lavoisier first conceived the indestructibility of matter, and Joule, for energy, defined a like relation, and with his paddle wheel and falling weight transformed mechanical movement into heat, nature has become for scientific eyes an orderly arrangement. Changes of form and state; a constant interchange of forces; pressure, volume, heat, and concentrations, all calculably linked with one another! The elements in periodic systems, first recognized by their atomic weights, now by symmetrical configuration of stellar systems formed by their electrons! The balance struck between electric force and chemical reaction! Although our ignorance is great, and wide the seas still unexplored between the little islands of our knowledge, yet in the realm of inorganic nature a harmony of matter and of forces begins to be revealed.

And likewise in the world of living things, though difficulties grow a hundredfold, patiently plodding science ploughs a way to deeper comprehension. Since Darwin turned the key, the life that teems about us has yielded many of its mysteries. The principles of fitness to surroundings, selective evolution of adjustments, survival of those fittest to adjust, have joined the infinite varieties of form in one great family tree of life — which we can follow to its common roots. Man can no longer stand apart, the centre of creation planned for him, but finds his modest place — the temporary apex of transitions that will pass beyond him.

The laws that govern nourishment and growth, or reproduction and inheritance, are taking form. Mendelian genetics are applied to plant life as to flies, to mice and men; and principles are everywhere the same. The energy by which we move is measurable by chemical exchange. The elements that nourish us are traced until they reappear in altered form. Ingestion and excretion strike a balance which cannot be disturbed without disaster. An ordered equilibrium of synthesis and cleavage governs life. The inorganic world serves living things, and animals and plant life serve each other, in ceaseless building up and breaking down — in cycles that cannot be interrupted. The single cell, whether alone and near the roots of life, or whether a unit in a complex whole, must strike an equilibrium with its surroundings and regulate its maintenance. And those mysterious things we call its enzymes form bridges between iiving things and dead. The syntheses by which it: grows, the cleavages that give it energy, the mechanism which returns its wastes to nature, are processes which science can approach.

Thus infinite detail, patiently pursued, guides the divergent rivulets of science back to a central channel — where basic energies that regulate the inorganic world and life are found the same.

But did we understand it all, — as, at some future day, we may, — just as the source of matter and of force remains unsolved, so does the source of life defy our understanding. Thus, though we may reply to ‘how,’ the ‘why’ escapes us.

In spite of this our gain is great. For though the very facts which we have gathered convince us that the range of our perceptions is limited to things most obvious, and little though we know of cause or purpose, our comprehension has gone far enough definitely to exclude the accidental.

III

But need we stop with this? Science is but a method. Whatever its material, an observation accurately made and free of compromise to bias or desire, and undeterred by consequence, is science. Exploring thought can turn upon itself, study the process of its own deductions, and search the vaguer aspirations we call ‘soul.’

Much that the mind of man conceives can be dismissed as based on instinct to survive, or moved by force of physical desire. But there are things that stir it more profoundly, and which cannot so simply be explained.

Through the recorded history of mankind, through all the races and throughout the world, a struggle to lend life nobility is evident. Not sprung from needs of physical existence, without relation to self-interest, often in opposition to the instincts of personal or racial preservation, man has developed codes and theories that prove a yearning for release from pure materialism. Call it conscience; call it search for beauty; call it the formulation of religion; whatever we may call it, it is there. And its consistency, under diverse experimental circumstance of time and background, proves it — as any scientific fact was ever proved — a natural law that governs consciousness.

Conceived in many varying forms. the spirit is the same. As William James has put it, ‘Stoic, Christian, Buddhist saint, their lives are indistinguishable. The theories which religion generates are variable, therefore secondary. To grasp their essence one must look to constant elements, the feeling and the conduct.’ The Greek philosophers, Confucius, Buddha, Christ — why did their precepts sweep across the earth in permanent conquest of the minds of men as no mere victory of arms could subjugate their bodies? What was the irresistible, impelling power that took the hearts of men by storm?

A leader leads because the way he points makes deep appeal to those that follow him. His teachings would be sterile did they not release a hidden force of dormant aspirations — of which there often was no consciousness until his call awakened them. It proves that, deep implanted in the mind of man, as much a part of his biology as laws of nourishment and growth, a hunger for spiritual development is rooted.

The discipline of man is self-imposed. The slave of Michael Angelo is bound with ropes. But when we look to see what binds him, we behold the knots are held by his own fingers. Christ is reborn in every little child — and that which we revere in him is but a something in ourselves which answers to his voice. His spirit, urged by some instinctive yearning, — uncomprehended, often slumbering, never completely crucified by life,—holds us erect to face the universe, helpless and wondering and soon to disappear, but conscious of the dignity of living. Voices of singing children carry it; and it pervades the tender whisperings of women who hold desired children to their hearts; rejoices with young men who smile at death for some vague aspiration; it speaks to those who know that love is giving; guides hands that seek the shoulder of a friend; and sits in empty rooms with him who grieves.

Conscience, pity, honor, sense of justice — untaught, they grow as organs of the mind.

And all this lends conviction to belief that there is some consistent, basic law which underlies the spirit of compassion, of charity and the nobilities of life by which we are impelled without volition, upward, whither no one knows, to some as yet unfathomed, surely harmonious end.

Scientific thought can go no farther. But need it?