C‎ > ‎Chalmers, Thomas - 1780-1847‎ > ‎Volume 1‎ > ‎

Bk. 1. - Chap. 2. - "On the Duty which is laid upon Men by the Probability or even the Imagination of a God."


We have already seen that even though the objects of Theology lay under total obscurity, there might be a distinct and vigorous play of the Ethics notwithstanding — kept in actual exercise among those objects which are seen and terrestrial, and in readiness for eventual exercise on the revelation of unseen and celestial objects. This, however, does not accurately represent the real state of nature — for in no age or country of the world, we believe, {Page No. 57.} did the objects of Theology lie hidden under an entire and unqualified darkness. There is, in reference to them, a sort of twilight glimmering, more or less, among all nations — and the question is, what sort of regimen or responsibility may that man be said to lie under, whose sole guidance in Theology is that which a very indistinct view of its objects, though with certainty a more distinct sense of its ethics, may suggest ?


This brings us to the consideration of the duty laid upon men by the probability or even the imagination of a God.


It must now be abundantly obvious, that along with nature’s discernment of the ethics, she may labour at the same time under a comparative blindness as to the objects of Theological Science. On the hypothesis of an actually existent God, there may be an urgent sense in human consciences of the gratitude and the obedience which belong to him. But still while this ethical apprehension may be clear and vivid, there may be either a bright or a dull conviction in regard to the truth of the hypothesis itself. We should here distinguish the things which be distinct from each other; and carefully note that, along with a just discernment of the proprieties which belong to certain moral relations, the question may still be unresolved, whether these relations be m truth exemplified by any real and having beings in the universe. What is right under certain moral relations, supposing them to be occupied, is one consideration. What exists in nature or in the universe to occupy these relations is another. It does not follow that though {Page No. 58.} nature should be able to pronounce clearly and confidently on the first of these topics — she can therefore pronounce alike confidently on the second of them. The two investigations are conducted on different principles; and the two respective sorts of evidence upon which they proceed are just as different, as is the light of a mathematical demonstration from that light of observation by which we apprehend a fact or an object in Natural Philosophy. We have already conceded to nature the possession of that moral light by which she can to a certain, and we think to a very considerable extent, take accurate cognizance of the ethics of our science. And we have now to inquire in how far she is competent to her own guidance in seeking after the objects of the science.


The main object of Theology is God.


Going back then to the very earliest of our mental conceptions on this subject, we advert first to the distinction in point of real and logical import, between unbelief and disbelief. There being no ground for affirming that there is a God is a different proposition, from there being ground for affirming that there is no God. The former we apprehend, to be the furthest amount of the atheistical verdict on the question of a God. The atheist does not labour to demonstrate that there is no God. But he labours to demonstrate that there is no adequate proof of there being one. He does not positively affirm the position, that God is not; but he affirms the lack of evidence for the position, that God is. Judging from the tendency and effect of his arguments, an atheist does not appear {Page No. 59.} positively to refuse that a God may be — but he insists that He has not discovered Himself, whether by the utterance of His voice in audible revelation or by the impress of His hand upon visible nature. His verdict on the doctrine of a God is only that it is not proven. It is not that it is disproven. He is but an Atheist. He is not an Anti-theist.


Now there is one consideration, which affords the inquirer a singularly clear and commanding position, at the outset of this great question. It is this. We cannot, without a glaring contravention to all the principles of the experimental philosophy, recede to a further distance from the doctrine of a God, than to the position of simple atheism. We do not need to take our departure from any point further back than this, in the region of anti-theism; for that region cannot possibly be entered by us but by an act of tremendous presumption, which it were premature to denounce as impious, but which we have the authority of all modern science for denouncing as unphilosophical. We can figure a rigidly Baconian mind, of a cast so slow and cautious and hesitating, as to demand more of proof ere it gave its conviction to the doctrine that there was absolutely and certainly a God. But, in virtue of these very attributes, would it, if a sincere and consistent mind, be at least equally slow in giving its conviction to the doctrine that there was absolutely and certainly not a God. Such a mind would be in a state neither for assertion nor for denial upon this subject. It would settle in ignorance or unbelief which is quite another thing from disbelief. The {Page No. 60.} place it occupied would be some mid-way region of scepticism — and if it felt unwarranted from any evidence before it that God is, it would at the very least feel equally unwarranted to affirm that God is not. To make this palpable, we have only to contrast the two intellectual states, not of theism and atheism, but of theism and anti-theism — along with the two processes, by which alone, we can be logically and legitimately led to them.


To be able to say then that there is a God, we may have only to look abroad on some definite territory, and point to the vestiges that are given of His power and His presence somewhere. To be able to say that there is no God, we must walk the whole expanse of infinity, and ascertain by observation, that such vestiges are to be found nowhere. Grant that no trace of Him can be discerned in that quarter of contemplation, which our puny optics have explored — does it follow, that, throughout all immensity, a Being with the essence and sovereignty of a God is nowhere to be found? Because through our loopholes of communication with that small portion of external nature which is before us, we have not seen or ascertained a God — must we therefore conclude of every unknown and untrodden vastness in this immutable universe, that no Divinity is there? — Or because, through the brief successions of our little day, these heavens have not once broken silence, is it therefore for us to speak to all the periods of that eternity which is behind us; and to say, that never hath a God come forth with the unequivocal tokens of His existence ? Ere we can {Page No. 61.} say that there is a God — we must have seen, on that portion of Nature to which we have access, the print of His footsteps; or have had direct in the nation from Himself; or been satisfied by the authentic memorials of His converse with our species in other days. But ere we can say that there is no God — we must have roamed over all nature, and seen that no mark of a Divine footstep was there; and we must have gotten intimacy with every existent spirit in the universe, and learned from each, that never did a revelation of the Deity visit him; and we must have searched, not into the records of one solitary planet, but into the archives of all worlds, and thence gathered, that, throughout the wide realms of immensity, not one exhibition of a reigning and living God ever has been made. Atheism might plead a lack of evidence within its own field of observation. But anti-theism pronounces both upon the things which are, and the things which are not within that field. It breaks forth and beyond all those limits, that have been prescribed to man’s excursive spirit, by the sound philosophy of experience; and by a presumption the most tremendous, even the usurpation of all space and of all time, it affirms that there is no God. To make this out, we should need to travel abroad over the surrounding universe till we had exhausted it, and to search backward through all the hidden recesses of eternity; to traverse in every direction the plains of infinitude, and sweep the outskirts of that space which is itself interminable; and then bring back to this little world of ours, the report of a universal blank, wherein we had not {Page No. 62.} met with one manifestation or one movement of a presiding God. For man not to know of a God, he has only to sink beneath the level of our common nature. But to deny him, he must be a God himself. He must arrogate the ubiquity and omniscience of the Godhead.


It affords a firm outset to this investigation, that we cannot recede a greater way from the doctrine to be investigated, than to the simple point of ignorance or unbelief. We cannot, without making inroad on the soundest principles of evidence, move one step back from this, to the region of disbelief. We can figure an inquirer taking up his position in midway atheism. But he cannot, without defiance to the whole principle and philosophy of evidence, make aggression thence on the side of anti-theism. There is a clear intellectual {Page No. 63.} principle, which forbids his proceeding in that direction; and there is another principle equally clear, though not an intellectual but a moral one, which urges him, if not to move, at least to look in the opposite direction. We are not asking him, situated where he is, to believe in God. For the time being, we as little expect a friendly as we desire a hostile decision upon the question. Our only demand for the present is, that he shall entertain the question. And to enforce the demand, we think that an effective appeal might be made to his own moral nature. We suppose him still to be an atheist, but no more than an atheist — for, in all right Baconian logic, the very farthest remove from theism, at which he or any man can be placed by the lack of evidence for a God, is at the point of simple neutrality. We might well assume this point, as the utmost possible extreme of alienation from the doctrine of a Creator, to which the mind of a creature can in any circumstances be legitimately carried. We cannot move from it, in the direction towards anti-theism, without violence to all that is just in philosophy; and we might therefore commence with inquiring, whether, in this lowest state of information and proof upon the question, there can be any thing assigned, Which should lead us to move, or at least to look in the opposite direction.


In the utter destitution, for the present, of any argument, or even semblance of argument, that a God is — there is, perhaps, a certain duteous movement which the mind ought to take, on the bare suggestion that a God may be. An object {Page No. 64.} in moral science may be wholly unseen, while the Ethics connected with that object may not be wholly unfelt. The certainty of an actual God binds over to certain distinct and most undoubted proprieties. But so also may the imagination of a possible God — in which case, the very idea of a God, even in its most hypothetical form, might lay a responsibility, even upon atheists.


Here then is one palpable use for the distinction between the ethics and the objects of Theology, or between the Deontology and Ontology of it. We may have a moral nature for the one, even when in circumstances of utter blindness to the other. The mere conception of the objects is enough to set the ethics agoing. Though in the dark as to the question whether a God exists, yet on the bare imagination of a God, we are not at all in the dark as to the question of the gratitude and the obedience which are due to Him. There is a moral light in the midst of intellectual darkness — an ethics that waits only for the presentation of the objects. The very idea of a God, even in its most hypothetical form, will bring along with it an instant sense and recognition of the moralities and duties that would be owing to Him. Should an actual God be revealed, we clearly feel that there is a something which we ought to be and to do in regard to Him. But more than this; should a possible God be imagined, there is a something not only which we feel that we ought, but a something which we actually ought to do or to be, in consequence of our being visited by such an imagination. The thought of a God not only suggests what would be our {Page No. 65.} incumbent obligations, did such a Being become obvious to our convictions — but the thought of a God suggests what are the incumbent obligations which commence with the thought itself, and are anterior even to the earliest dawn of evidence for a Deity. We hold that there are such obligations; and our purpose now is, if possible, to ascertain them.


To make this palpable, we might imagine a family suffering under extreme destitution, and translated all at once into sufficiency or affluence by an anonymous donation. Had the benefactor been known, the gratitude that were due to him becomes abundantly obvious; and in the estimation of every conscience, nothing could exceed the turpitude of him, who should regale himself on the bounties wherewith he had been enriched, and yet pass unheedingly by the giver of them all. Yet does not a proportion of this very guilt rest upon him, who knows not the hand that relieved him, yet cares not to inquire ? It does not exonerate him from the burden of all obligation that he knows not the hand which sustains him. He incurs a guilt, if he do not want to know. It is enough to convict him of a great moral delinquency, if he have gladly seized upon the liberalities which were brought in secret to his door, yet seeks not after the quarter whence they have come — willing that the hand of the dispenser should remain for ever unknown, and not wanting any such disclosures as would lay a distinct claim or obligation upon himself. He altogether lives by the bounty of another; yet would rather continue to live without the burden of those {Page No. 66.} services or acknowledgments that are due to him. His ignorance of the benefactor might alleviate the charge of ingratitude; but it plainly awakens the charge again, if he choose to remain in ignorance, and would shun the information that might dispel it. In reference then to this still undiscovered patron of his family, it is possible for him to evince ingratitude; to make full exhibition of a nature that is unmoved by kindness and withholds the moral responses which are due to it, that can riot with utmost selfishness and satisfaction upon the gifts while in total indifference about the giver — an indifference which might be quite as clearly and characteristically shown, by the man who seeks not after his unknown friend, as by the man who slights him after that he has found him.


And further this ingratitude admits of degrees. It may exist even in a state of total uncertainty as to the object of it; and without the smallest clue to the discovery of him. But should some such clue be put into his hand, and he forbear the prosecution of it — this would enhance the ingratitude. It were an aggravation of his baseness if there cast up some opening to a discovery, and he declined to follow it — if the probability fell in his way that might have guided him to the unseen hand which had been stretched forth in his behalf, and he shut his eyes against it — if he, satisfied with the bounty, were not merely content to live without the slightest notice of the benefactor, but lived in utter disregard of every notice that transpired upon the subject — loving the darkness rather than the light upon this question; and better pleased to {Page No. 67.} grovel in the enjoyment of the gifts without the burden of any gratitude to that giver whom he rather wills to abide in secrecy. There is most palpable delinquency of spirit in all this; and it would become still more evident, should he distinctly refuse the calls that were brought within his hearing to prosecute an inquiry. The grateful man would not do this. He would be restless under the ignorance of him to whom he owed the preservation of his family. He would feel the uneasiness of a heart whose most urgent desire was left without its object. It is thus that anterior to the knowledge of the giver, and far anterior to the full certainty of him — the moralities which spring from the obligation of his gifts might come into play. Even in this early stage, there is, in reference to him who is yet unknown, a right and a wrong — and there might be evinced either the worth of a grateful disposition, or there be incurred the guilt of its opposite. Under a discipline of penalties and rewards for the encouragement of virtue, one man might be honoured for the becoming sensibilities of his heart to one whom he never saw; and another be held responsible for his conduct to him of whom he utterly w as ignorant.


It may thus be made to appear, that there is an ethics connected with theology, which may come into play, anterior to the clear view of any of its objects. More especially, we do not need to be sure of God, ere we ought to have certain feelings, or at least certain aspirations towards him. For this purpose we do not need, fully and absolutely to believe that God is. It is enough {Page No. 68.} that our minds cannot fully and absolutely acquiesce in the position that God is not. To be fit subjects for our present argument, we do not need to have explored that territory of nature which is within our reach; and thence gathered, in the traces of a designer’s hand the positive conclusion that there is a God. It is enough if we have not traversed, throughout all its directions and in all its extent, the sphere of immensity; and if we have not scaled the mysterious altitudes of the eternity that is past; nor, after having there searched for a divinity in vain, have come at length to the positive and the peremptory conclusion, that there is not a God. In a word, it is quite enough that man is barely a finite creature, who has not yet put forth his faculties on the question whether God is; neither has yet so ranged over all space and all time, as definitely to have ascertained that God is not — but with whom though in ignorance of all proof, it still remains a possibility that God may be.


Now to this condition there attaches a most clear and incumbent morality. It is to go in quest of that unseen benefactor, who for aught I know, has ushered me into existence, and spread so glorious a panorama around me. It is to probe the secret of my being and my birth; and, if possible, to make discovery whether it was indeed the hand of a benefactor, that brought me forth from the chambers of nonentity, and gave me place and entertainment in that glowing territory, which is lighted up with the hopes and the happiness of living men. It is thus that the very conception of a God throws a responsibility after it; and that {Page No. 69.} duty, solemn and imperative duty, stands associated with the thought of a possible deity, as well as with the sight of a present deity, standing in full manifestation before us. Even anterior to all knowledge of God, or when that knowledge is in embryo, there is both a path of irreligion and a path of piety; and that law which denounces the one and gives to the other an approving testimony, may find in him who is still m utter darkness about his origin and his end, a fit subject for the retributions which she deals in. He cannot be said to have borne disregard to the will of that God, whom he has found. But his is the guilt of impiety, in that he has borne disregard to the knowledge of that God, whom he was bound by every tie of gratitude to seek after — a duty not founded on the proofs that may be exhibited for the being of a God, but a duty to which even the most slight and slender of presumptions should give rise. And who can deny that, antecedent to all close and careful examination of the proofs, there are at least many presumptions in behalf of a God, to meet the eye of every observer ? Is there any so hardy as to deny, that the curious workmanship of his frame may have had a designer and an architect; that the ten thousand independent circumstances which must be united ere he can have a moment’s ease, and the failure of any one of which would be agony, may not have met at random, but that there may be a skilful and unseen hand to have put them together into one wondrous concurrence, and that never ceases to uphold it; that there may be a real and a living artist, whose fingers did frame the economy of actual {Page No. 70.} things, and who hath so marvellously suited all that is around us to our senses and our powers of gratification ? Without affirming aught Which is positive, surely the air that we breathe, and the beautiful light m which we expatiate, these elements of sight and sound so exquisitely fitted to the organs of the human frame-work, may have been provided by one who did benevolently consult in them our special accommodation. The graces innumerable that lie widely spread over the face of our world, the glorious concave of heaven that is placed over us, the grateful variety of seasons that like Nature’s shifting panorama ever brings new entertainment and delight to the eye of spectators — these may, for aught we know, be the emanations of a creative mind, that originated our family and devised such a universe for their habitation. Regarding these, not as proofs, but in the humble light of presumptions for a God, they are truly enough to convict us of foulest ingratitude — if we go not forth in quest of a yet unknown, but at least possible or likely benefactor. They may not resolve the question of a God. But they bring the heaviest reproach on our listlessness to the question; and show that, anterior to our assured belief in his existence, there lies upon us a most imperious obligation to “stir ourselves up that we may lay hold of Him.”


Such presumptions as these, if not so many demands on the belief of man, are at least so many demands upon his attention; and then, for aught he knows, the presumptions on which he ought to inquire, may be more and more enhanced, till they brighten into proofs which ought to convince him.

{Page No. 71.}The prima facia evidence for a God may not be enough to decide the question; but it should at least decide man to entertain the question. To think upon how slight a variation either in man or in external nature, the whole difference between physical enjoyment and the most acute and most appalling of physical agony may turn; to think how delicate the balance is, and yet how surely and steadfastly it is maintained, so as that the vast majority of creatures are not only upheld in comfort but often may be seen disporting themselves in the redundancy of gaiety; to think of the pleasurable sensations wherewith every hour is enlivened, and how much the most frequent and familiar occasions of life are mixed up with happiness; to think of the food, and the recreation, and the study, and the society, and the business, each having an appropriate relish of its own, so as in fact to season with enjoyment the great bulk of our existence in the world; to think that, instead of living in the midst of grievous and incessant annoyance to all our faculties, we should have awoke upon a world that so harmonized with the various senses of man, and both gave forth such music to his ear, and to his eye such manifold loveliness; to think of all these palpable and most precious adaptations, and yet to care not, whether in this wide universe there exists a being who has had any hand in them; to riot and regale oneself to the uttermost in the midst of all this profusion, and yet to send not one wishful inquiry after that Benevolence which for aught we know may have laid it at our feet — this, however shaded from our view the object of the question {Page No. 72.} may be, is, from its very commencement, a clear outrage against its ethical proprieties. If that veil of dim transparency, which hides the Deity from our immediate perceptions, were lifted up; and we should then spurn from us the manifested God — this were direct and glaring impiety. But anterior to the lifting of that veil, there may be impiety. It is impiety to be so immersed as we are, in the busy objects and gratifications of life; and yet to care not whether there be a great and a good spirit by whose kindness it is that life is upholden. It needs not that this great spirit should reveal Himself in characters that force our attention to Him, ere the guilt of our impiety has begun. But ours is the guilt of impiety, in not lifting our attention towards God, in not seeking after Him if haply we may find Him.


Man is not to blame, if an atheist, because of the want of proof. But he is to blame, if an atheist, because he has shut his eyes. He is not to blame, that the evidence for a God has not been seen by liim, if no such evidence there were within the field of his observation. But he is to blame, if the evidence have not been seen, because he turned away his attention from it. That the question of a God may lie unresolved in his mind, all he has to do, is to refuse a hearing to the question. He may abide without the conviction of a God, if he so choose. But this his choice is matter of condemnation. To resist God after that He is known, is criminality towards Him; but to be satisfied that He should remain unknown, is like criminality towards Him. There is a moral perversity of {Page No. 73.} spirit with him who is willing, in the midst of many objects of gratification, that there should not be one object of gratitude. It is thus that, even in the ignorance of God, there may be a responsibility towards God. The Discerner of the heart sees, whether, for the blessings innumerable wherewith He has strewed the path of every man, He be treated, like the unknown benefactor who was diligently sought, or like the unknown benefactor who was never cared for. In respect, at least of desire after God, the same distinction of character may be observed between one man and another — whether God be wrapt in mystery, or stand forth in full development to our world. Even though a mantle of deepest obscurity lay over the question of His existence; this would not efface the distinction, between the piety on the one hand which laboured and aspired after Him; and the impiety upon the other which never missed the evidence that it did not care for, and so grovelled in the midst of its own sensuality and selfishness. The eye of a heavenly witness is upon all these varieties; and thus, whether it be darkness or whether it be dislike which hath caused a people to be ignorant of God, there is with him a clear principle of judgment, that He can extend even to the outfields of atheism.


It would appear then, that, however shaded from the view of man are the objects of Theology, as in virtue of his moral nature he can feel and recognise in some degree the ethics of Theology — even in this initial state of his mind on the question of a God, there is an impellent force upon the conscience, which he ought to obey, and which he {Page No. 74.} incurs guilt by resisting. We do not speak of that light which irradiates the termination of the inquirer’s path, but of that embryo or rudimental light which glimmers over the outset of it; which serves at least to indicate the commencement of his way; and which, for aught he knows, may brighten, as he advances onwards, to the blaze of a full and finished revelation. At no point of this progress, does “the trumpet give an uncertain sound,” extending, if not to those who stand on the ground of anti-theism, (which we have already pronounced upon and we trust proved to be madly irrational) — at least to those who stand on the ground of atheism, who, though strangers to the conviction, are certainly not strangers to the conception of a Deity. It is of the utmost practical importance, that even these are not beyond the jurisdiction of an obvious principle; and that a right obligatory call can be addressed to men so far back on the domain of irreligion and ignorance. It is deeply interesting to know, by what sort of moral force, even an atheist ought to be evoked from the fastness which he occupies — what are the notices, by responding to which, he should come forth with open eyes and a willing mind to this high investigation; and by resisting which, he will incur a demerit, whereof a clear moral cognizance might be taken, and whereon a righteous moral condemnation might be passed. The “fishers of men” should know the uttermost reach of their argument; and it is well to understand of religion, that, if she have truth and authority at all, there is a voice proceeding from her which might be universally {Page No. 75.} heard — so that even the remotest families of earth, if not reclaimed by her, are thereby laid under sentence of righteous reprobation.


On this doctrine of the moral dynamics, which operate and are in force, even in our state of profoundest ignorance respecting God, there may be grounded three important applications.


The first is that aU men, under all the possible varieties of illumination, may nevertheless he the fit subjects for a judicial cognizance — insomuch that when admitted to the universal account, the Discerner of the heart will be at no loss for a principle on which they all might be reckoned with — as, corresponding to a very dim perception of the objects of religion, there might still be as much in operation of the ethics of religion as might lay a distinct responsibility even on the most wild and untutored of nature’s children. Within the whole compass of the human family there exists not one outcast tribe that might not be made the subjects of a moral reckoning at the bar of heaven’s jurisprudence — even though no light from the upper sanctuary hath ever shone upon them; and neither hath any light of science or of civilization sprung up among themselves. In each untutored bosom there do exist the elements of a moral nature; and the peculiar character of each could be seen from the way in which it responded to the manifestation of a Deity. And though only visited by the thought or the suspicion of a Deity, the same thing still could be seen from the way in which these children of nature were affected by it. Each would give his own entertainment to the thought; and, in the {Page No. 76.} longings of a vague and undefined earnestness that arose to heaven from the solitary wild, might there be evinced as strong an affinity for God and for godliness, as in those praises of an enlightened gratitude that ascend from the temples of Christendom. It is thus that the Searcher of the inner man will find out data for a reckoning among all the tribes of this world’s population — and that nowhere on the face of our globe doth spiritual light glimmer so feebly as not to supply the materials of a coming judgment on one and all of the human family.


It is thus that even to the most remote and unlettered tribes, men are everywhere the fit subjects for a judgment-day. Their belief, scanty though it be, hath a correspondent morality which they may either observe or be deficient in, and so be reckoned with accordingly. They have few of the facts in Theology; and these may be seen too through the hazy medium of a dull and imperfect evidence, or perhaps have only been shadowed out to them by the power of imagination. Their theology may have arisen no higher than to the passing suggestion of a God — a mere surmise or rumination about an unseen spirit, who, tending all their footsteps, was their guardian and their guide through the dangers of the pathless wilderness, who provides all the sustenance which this earth can supply, and hath lighted up these heavens in all their glory. Now in this thought, fugitive though it be, in these uncertain glimpses whether of a truth or of a possibility, there is that, to which the elements of their moral nature might respond — so that to them, there is not the same {Page No. 77.} exemption from all responsibility, which will be granted to the man who is sunk in hopeless idiotism, or to the infant of a day old. Even with the scanty materials of a heathen creed, a pure or a perverse morality might be grounded thereupon — whether, in those longings of a vague and undefined earnestness that arise from him who feels in his bosom an affinity for God and godliness; or, in the heedlessness of him, who, careless of an unknown benefactor, would have been alike careless, although He had stood revealed to his gaze, with as much light and evidence as is to be had in Christendom. These differences attest what man is, under the dark economy of Paganism; and so give token to what he would be, under the bright economy of a full and finished revelation. It is thus that the Searcher of the heart will find out data for a reckoning, even among the rudest of nature’s children, or among those whose spiritual light glimmers most feebly — for faint and feeble though it be, it affords a test to the character of him whom it visits — whether he dismiss its suggestions with facility from his mind, or is arrested thereby into a grateful sense of reverence. Even the simple theology of the desert can supply the materials of a coming judgment — so that the Discerner of the inner man, able to tell who it is that morally acts and morally feels up to the light he has, or up to the objects that lie within his contemplation, will be at no loss for a principle, on which He might clearly and righteously try all the men of all the generations that be upon the face of the earth.


We read in the Epistle to the Romans of a {Page No. 78.} day when God shall judge the secrets of men — both of the Jews who shall be judged by the written law, and of the Gentiles who have the work of the law written in their hearts, and are a law to themselves. We may now perhaps comprehend more distinctly how this may be. Though it be true that the more clearly we know God, the more closely does the obligation of godliness lie upon us — yet there might be none so removed from the knowledge of God as to stand released from all obligation. There is the sense of a Divinity in every mind; and correspondent to that sense, there is a morality that is either complied with by the will or rebelled against — so that under all the possible varieties of illumination and doctrine which obtain in various countries of the world, there might be exemplified either a religiousness or an impiety of character. The heavenly witness who is on high can discern in every instance — whether to the conception of a great invisible power that floats indistinctly in many a bosom, but is nowhere wholly obliterated, there be such duteous regards of the heart or such duteous conformities of the life as morality would dictate, and out of this question can be gathered materials for a cognizance and a reckoning with all. The Searcher of hearts knows how to found a clear and righteous judgment even on those moral phenomena that are given forth by men in the regions of grossest heathenism — and though the condemnation will fall lightest where the ignorance has been most profound, and at the same time involuntary; yet none we think of our species are so deeply immersed in {Page No. 79.} blindness or fatuity about God, as that he might not be sisted at the bar of heaven’s jurisprudence, and there meet with a clear principle of condemnation to rest upon him. 


The second important bearing of this principle is on the subject of religious education. For what is true of a savage is true of a child. It may rightly feel the ethics of the relation between itself and God, before it rationally apprehends the object of this relation. Its moral may outrun its argumentative light. Long anterior to the possibility of any sound conviction as to the character or existence of a God, it may respond with sound and correct feeling to the mere conception of Him. We hold, that, on this principle, the practice of early, nay even of infantine religious education, may, in opposition to the invectives of Rousseau and others, be fully and philosophically vindicated. Even though the object should be illusory, still on this low supposition there is no moral deterioration incurred but the contrary by an education which calls forth a right exercise of the heart, even to an imaginary being. But should the object be real, then the advantage of that anticipative process by which it is addressed to the conception of the young, before it can be intelligently recognised by them, is, that though it do not at once enlighten them on the question of a God, it at least awakens them to the question. Though they are not yet capable of appreciating the proofs which decide the question, it is a great matter, that, long before they have come to this they can feel the moral propriety of giving it solemn and respectful {Page No. 80.} entertainment. Anterior to a well-grounded belief in the objects of religion, there is a preparatory season of religious scholarship, commencing with childhood and reaching onward through successive stages in the growth of intellect — a very early and useful season of aspirations and inquiries prompted by a sense of duty even to the yet unknown God. Here it is, that the ethics of our science and the objects of our science stand most noticeably out from each other — for, at the very time that the objects are unknown, there is an impellent force upon the spirit, of a clear ethical dictate, enjoining us to acquire the knowledge of them. 


And this early education can be vindicated not only on the score of principle, but also on the score of effect. Whether it properly illuminates or not, it at least prepares for those brighter means of illumination which are competent to a higher state of the understanding. If it do not rationally convince, it at least provides a responsibility, though not a security for that attention which goes before such a conviction. It does not consummate the process; but, in as far as the moral precedes the intellectual, it makes good the preliminary steps of the process — insomuch that, in every Christian land, the youth and the manhood are accountable for their belief, because accountable for their use or their neglect of that inquiry, by which the belief ought to have been determined. There is no individual so utterly a stranger to the name and the conception of a Divinity as to be without the scope of this obligation. They have all from their infancy heard of God. Many have been trained to {Page No. 81.} think of Him, amidst a thousand associations of reverence. Some, under a roof of piety, have often lisped the prayers of early childhood to this unseen Being; and, in the oft repeated sound of morning and evening orisons, they have become familiar to His name. Even they who have grown up at random through the years of a neglected boyhood, are greatly within the limits of that responsibility for which we plead. They have at least the impression of a God. When utterance of Him is made in their hearing, they are not startled as if by the utterance of a thing unnoticed and unknown. They are fully possessed, if not with the certainty, at least with the idea, of a great eternal Sovereign whose kingdom is. the universe, and on whose will all its processes are suspended. Whosoever may have escaped from the full and practical belief of such a Being, he most assuredly hath not escaped from the conception of Him. The very imprecations of profaneness may have taught it to him. The very Sabbaths he spends in riot and blasphemy at least remind him of a God. The worship-bell of the church he never enters, conveys to him, if not the truth at least an imagination of the truth. In all these ways and in many more beside, there is the sense of a God upon his spirit — and if such a power of evidence hath not been forced upon his understanding as to compel the assurance that God is — at least such intimations have been given, that he cannot possibly make his escape from the thought that a God may be. In spite of himself this thought will overtake him, and if it do not arrest him by a sense of obligation, it will leave {Page No. 82.} guilt upon his soul. It might not make him a believer, but it ought to make him an inquirer — and in this indifference of his there is the very essence of sin — though it be against a God who is unknown. 


And, thirdly, we may thus learn to appreciate the plea on which the irreligious of all classes in society would fain extenuate their heedlessness —from the homely peasant who alleges his want of scholarship, to the gay and dissipated voluptuary who, trenched in voluntary darkness, holds himself to be without the pale of a reckoning, because he demands a higher evidence for religion than has ever yet shone upon his understanding. This antecedency of the ethics, not to the conception, but at least to the belief of the objects, places them all within the jurisdiction of a principle — the violation of which brings guilt and danger in its train. Instead of waiting till the light of an overpowering manifestation shall descend upon their spirits, it is their part to lift up their attention to the light which is offered. It will not exempt them from blame that they have never found the truth which would have saved them — if their own consciences can tell that in good earnest they have never sought it. Their heedlessness about an unknown though possible God, is just the moral perversity that would make them heedless of a God who had been fully ascertained — and, rudely unsettled though they may deem their Theology to be, it may be enough to make them responsible for deepest seriousness about God; and if they want this seriousness, enough to convict them of most glaring impiety. This principle tells even at the {Page No. 83.} outset of a minster’s dealings with the most rustic congregations; and, all ignorant as they may be of the proofs by which religion is substantiated, there is still even in their untutored minds such an impression of probability, as if not sufficient to decide the question, should at least summon all their faculties to the respectful entertainment of it. 


We may thus perceive what that is, on “which a teacher of religion finds an introduction for his topic, even into the minds of people in the lowest state both of moral and intellectual debasement. They may have not that in them, at the outset of his ministrations, which can enable them to decide the question of a God; but they have at least that in them, which should summon their attention to it. They have at least such a sense of the divinity, as their own consciences wUl tell, should put them on the regards and the inquiries of moral earnestness. This is a clear principle which operates at the very commencement of a religious course; and causes the first transition, from the darkness and insensibility of alienated nature, to the feelings and attentions of seriousness. The truth is, that there is a certain rudimental theology every where, on which the lessons of a higher theology may be grafted — as much as to condemn, if not to awaken the apathy of nature. What we have already said of the relation in which the father of a starving household stands to the giver of an anonymous donation, holds true of the relation in which all men stand to the unseen or anonymous God. Though in a state of absolute darkness, and without one token or clue to a {Page No. 84.} discovery, there is room for the exhibition of moral differences among men — for even then, all the elements of morality might be at work, and all the tests of moral propriety might be abundantly verified; and still more, after that certain likelihoods had arisen, or some hopeful opening had occurred for investigating the secret of a God, There is the utmost moral difference that can be imagined between the man who would gaze with intense scrutiny upon these likelihoods, and the man who either in heedlessness or aversion would turn his eyes from them; between the man who would seize upon such an opening and prosecute such an investigation to the uttermost, and the man who either retires or shrinks from the opportunity of a disclosure, that might burden him both with the sense and with the services of some mighty obligation. 


And the same moral force which begins this inquiry, also continues and sustains it. If there be power in the very conception of a God to create and constitute the duty of seeking after Him, this power grows and gathers with every footstep of advancement in the high investigation. If the thought of a merely possible deity have rightfully awakened a sense of obligation within us to entertain the question; the view of a probable deity must enhance this feeling, and make the claim upon our attention still more urgent and imperative than at the first. Every new likelihood makes the call louder, and the challenge more incumbently binding than before. In proportion to the light we had attained, would be the criminality of resisting {Page No. 85.} any further notices or manifestations of that mighty Being with whom we had so nearly and so emphatically to do. Under the impulse of a right principle, we should follow on to know God — till, after having done full justice both to our opportunities and our powers, we had made the most of all the available evidence that was within our reach, and possessed ourselves of all the knowledge that was accessible. 


But we shall expatiate no longer on the popular and practical applications of this principle — all important though they be; and will only now advert to the distinction between the ethics and the objects of Theology, for the purpose of elucidating by a very obvious analogy the relation in which the Natural and the Christian Theology stand to each other. 


And first, it is obvious that in virtue of our moral nature, such as it is, there might be a feeling of certain moral proprieties as appendant to certain relations between man and man without any recognition by the mind of God. Though the world were to be transported beyond the limits of the divine economy — though the Supreme were now to stamp a perpetuity upon its present laws both of physical and mental nature, and then to abandon it for ever — though He were to consign it to some distant and solitary place in a reign of atheism, only leaning untouched the outward accommodations by which man is now surrounded, and the internal mechanism which he carries m his bosom — let there be no difference but one, namely, that all sense of a ruling Divinity were expunged, but that with this {Page No. 86.} exception all the processes of thought and imagination and feeling went on upon their old principles — still would there be a morality among men, a recognition of the difference between right and wrong, just as distinct and decided as a recognition of the difference between beauty and deformity. There would be nought in such a translation of the human family to this new state that could break up the alliance between a view of loveliness in scenery, and the tasteful admiration of it; or between a view of integrity in character and the approval of its worth or its rectitude. By the supposition that we now make, the taste is left entire — and it has only to be presented with the same objects that it may be similarly affected as before. And by the same supposition the moral nature is left entire — and it has only to be presented with the appropriate objects, that it may respond to them as it did before, and come forth with its wonted evolutions. The single difference is, that one object is withdrawn, that God henceforth is unheeded and unknown, that he is never present to the eye of the mind so as to call forth from the heart a sense of corresponding duteousness. But still in the utter absence of all thought and of all knowledge about God, there are other objects whereon with the human constitution unchanged the moral feeling and the moral faculty would find their appropriate exercise. There would still be the reciprocations of morality among men — the same relationship as before between injury and a sense of displeasure — between beneficence and a sense of gratitude — between a consciousness of guilt, towards a neighbour, if not {Page No. 87.} towards God, between this consciousness and the pain of self-dissatisfaction — between the exposure of human villany or baseness upon the one hand and the outcries of public execration on the other. The voice of the inward monitor would still be heard. The voice of society whether in applause or condemnation would still be heard. Men would still continue to accuse or else to excuse each other. The whole system of our jurisprudence might remain as at present — and superadded to it, there would be a court of conscience and a court of public opinion, by which, even after the world had been desolated of all sense of God, a natural regimen of morality might still be upholden. 


Let a mathematician retain his geometrical powers and perceptions entire; and though he should become an atheist, he will still apprehend a question of equality between one Hue and another. And let any one retain his moral powers and perceptions entire; and though he should become an atheist, he will still apprehend a question of equity between one man and another. Atheism does not hinder the resentment which he feels upon a provocation; neither does it hinder the instinctive sensibility which he feels at the sight of distress; neither does it hinder the quick and lively approval wherewith he regards an exhibition of virtue; nor yet the recoil of his adverse moral judgment with all its emotions of antipathy from some scene of perfidy or of violence. Though utterly broken loose from heaven, there would still be the same play of action and reaction upon earth. Both the obligation of a legal right, and the approbation of a moral rightness {Page No. 88.} would continue to be felt — and as in the chamber of a man’s own heart there would be a remorse upon the back of iniquity as before, and from the tribunal of society there would descend upon it a voice of rebuke as before — the obligations of morality would still have a meaning; and apart from the thought of God, there would be a sense as well as an understanding of moral obligation. 


With the access which the geometrician has at present to the orbs and the movements which be on high — his mathematics do avail him for the computations of a sublime astronomy. Let this access be barred; and still his mathematics would avail him as before for all terrestrial positions and distances. And so with the access which either peasant or philosopher has to the knowledge of God, his morals do avail for pointing out the incumbent gratitude and the incumbent obedience. Let this access be somehow intercepted, let the face of the Divinity be mantled in thickest darkness, insomuch that the very conception of Him were banished from our world; and still would there remain a sublunary morals that would take cognizance of the sublunary relationships as before. The astronomer in the one case might sink down into a landed surveyor. The aspiring candidate for heaven, in the other case, might sink down into a mere citizen of earth — yet there would be a surviving mathematics and also a surviving morals. The distinction between the right and the wrong would no more be obliterated by such an interception of our view towards the upper sanctuary, than the distinction between the east and the west would be cancelled {Page No. 89.} by the destruction of the telescope, and the disappearance of all its wondrous revelations from the memory of our species. The earth that we tread upon would still continue to be a platform for the display and exercise of the moral proprieties — and as it was in the age of Greece and Rome, the period of a distorted theology, so would it be now in the period of an utterly extinct theology — virtue would be felt in its rightness, and also be felt in the obligation of it. 


When Sir Isaac Newton was first made to know of the Satellites of Jupiter, he had not an essentially new mathematics to learn that he might evolve the law of their movements. The only novelty lay in the facts, and not in the principles that he brought to bear upon them. The geometry which guided him along these celestial orbs was the very same by which he traced the path of a projectile on the surface of our own planet; and to obtain a just estimate of those mazy heavens that now were opened to his view, he had only to transfer the mathematics which he before had to another set of data. And it is the very same with the revelations of a higher moral, as with those of a higher physical economy. It is a revelation not of new principles, but of new objects addressed to our old principles. The very ethics that had been long in frequent and familiar exercise about the things within our knowledge, are available for such tilings as are now offered for the first time to our contemplation — even though our eye had not before seen, nor our ear heard, nor yet it had ever entered into our hearts to conceive of them. The {Page No. 90.} very ethics that dictate our gratitude to an earthly benefactor, dictate also the transcending gratitude, the sublimer devotion that we owe to the benefactor who sitteth on high — just as the arithmetic which assigns the units of an earthly, is the same with that which assigns the millions of a distance that is heavenly. It is thus that the revelations of heaven meet with a law already written in the hearts of men upon earth — and so in the whole morality of that relationship which subsists between men and their Maker, do we meet with analogies to the morality of men who live without God in the world. 


Thus there is a natural philosophy which, when conversant with earthly objects alone, may be denominated the Science of Terrestrial Physics. And in like manner there is a moral philosophy which, when conversant with earthly objects alone, as with the various beings who occupy this globe, may be denominated the Science of Terrestrial Ethics. 


But even within the cognizance of man’s natural eye, there are heavenly objects whose paths and movements can be traced by him; and so be made the subject of mathematical description and mathematical reasoning. When he lifts himself to the contemplation of them, he enters on the confines of a science distinct from the former, though comprehended with it under the general title of Natural Philosophy — even what may be called the science of the Celestial Physics. In as far as he prosecutes this science without the aid of instruments for the enlargement of his vision, he {Page No. 91.} may be said to study the lessons of natural astronomy. There was such an astronomy prior to the invention of the telescope; and even still, the limits could be assigned between those truths or doctrines of the whole science of astronomy which lie within the ken of the natural eye, and those that lie without the ken of the natural eye, but within the ken of the telescope. 


And so truly of moral philosophy. Within the natural eyesight of the mind, there may be clearly perceived — not alone those objects of the science which are placed immediately around us upon earth; but there may also be perceived, though dimly and hazily we allow, one heavenly object of the science. The light of nature reaches more or less a certain way into the region of celestial ethics; and so there is a natural theology which, however dull or imperfect the medium through which it is viewed, presents us with something different from a total obscuration. There is a book of observation open to all men, in whose characters, indistinct though they be, we may read if not the signals at least the symptoms of a Divinity — and which, if not enough for the purpose of our seeing, are at least enough to make us responsible for the direction in which we are looking. The doctrines of this natural theology may not bear the decided impress of verities upon them — so that as the conclusions of a full and settled belief they may not be valuable. But they at least stand forth in the aspect of verisimilitudes — so that as calls to attention and further inquiry they are highly valuable. There was such {Page No. 92.} a theology prior to the Christian revelation — and even still there is a real, though not perhaps very definable limit between those truths of the whole science of theology which lie within the ken of nature, and those which lie without the ken of nature, but within the ken of revelation. 


And lastly, the telescope hath immeasurably extended the dominion of astronomical science. Objects, though before within the limits of vision yet descried but faintly, have had vivid illumination shed upon them; and an immensity teeming with secrets before undiscoverable hath been evolved on the contemplation of men. A world hath been expanded into a universe; and natural astronomy shrinks into a very little thing, when compared with that mighty system which the great instrument of modern revelation hath unfolded. What an injustice to this noble science, on the part of one of its expounders — did he limit himself to the information of the eye; and forbear every allusion to the powers or informations of the telescope. What a creeping and inadequate representation could he bring forth of it, if with no other materials than the phenomena of vision, he was barred either by ignorance of the telescope, or by a wilful contempt for its performances, from the glories of the higher astronomy. 


This consummates the analogy. By what may be termed an instrument of discovery too, a spiritual telescope, the science of Theology has been extended beyond its natural dimensions. By the word of God, the things of Heaven have been brought nigh to us i and the mysteries of an {Page No. 93.} ulterior region, impalpable to the eye of man, because utterly beyond its reach, have been opened to his view. It is that boundary where the light of nature ends and the light of revelation begins, which marks the separation between the respective provinces of Moral Philosophy and the Christian Theology. In demonstrating the credentials of Scripture we authenticate as it were the informations of the telescope. In expounding the contents of Scripture we lay before you the substance of these informations. We affirm the vast enlargement Which has thence accrued to Theology; from both the richness and the number of those places in the science to which man has been thereby introduced, and that otherwise would have been wholly inaccessible. There are men who can glory in the discoveries of modern science, and feel contemptuously of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet so meagre truly is their academic theism, notwithstanding the pomp of its demonstrations — that to suppress the doctrines of the Gospel were to inflict the same mutilation on the high theme of the celestial ethics, as astronomy would undergo by suppressing the informations of the telescope. 


We should not have expatiated at such length on this distinction between the Ethics and the Objects of Theology — had we not felt urged by the paramount importance of a principle which should be made as plain as may be to every understanding. And it is this — that from the very embryo of thought or feeling on the subject of religion, and in the rudest possible state of humanity, there is what may be called a moving moral force on the {Page No. 94.} spirit of man which, if he obey, will conduct him onward through successive manifestations, to what in his circumstances is a right state of belief in religion — and which if he resist, will supply the subject matter of his righteous condemnation. It should be made obvious that, in no circumstances whatever, he is beyond the pale of Heaven’s jurisprudence; and that whether or not he have light for the full assurance of his understanding, he has light enough to try his disposition towards God — both to prom-pt his desire towards Him, and give direction to his inquiries after him. Even on the lowly platform of the Terrestrial Ethics this principle comes into operation; and in virtue of it, every mind which feels as it ought, and aspires as it ought, will be at least set in motion and come to all the light which is within its reach. “He that doeth truth,” says the Saviour, “cometh to the light.” He that is rightly affected by the Ethics of the question, cometh to the Objects: and thus an entrance is made on the field of the Celestial Ethics, and possession taken by the mind of at least one section of it — Natural Theology. But after this is traversed; and the ulterior or revealed Theology has come into prospect, we hold that the same impulse which carried him onwards to the first will carry him onwards to the second. We shall therefore resume the consideration of this principle after that we have ended our exposition of the natural or the academic theism. And next in importance to the question “What are those conclusive proofs on the side of Religion which make it our duty to believe ?” is the question {Page No. 95.} “What are those initial presumptions which make it our duty to inquire ?” 


It is impossible to say how much or how little of evidence for a God may he in these first surmisings, these vague and shadowy imaginations of the mind respecting Him. They serve a great moral purpose notwithstanding — whether when entertained and followed out by man they act as an impellent to further inquiry, or when resisted they fasten upon him the condemnation of impiety. An argument for the existence of a Divinity has been grounded on the fact of such being the universal impression. We may not be able precisely to estimate the argument; but this affects not the importance of the fact itself, as being a thing of mighty subservience to the objects of a Divine administration — bringing a moral force on the spirits of all men, and so bringing all within the scope of a judicial reckoning. This applies indeed to the whole system of Natural Theology. It may be of invaluable service, even though it fall short of convincing us. We may never thoroughly entertain the precise weight or amount of its proofs. But this does not hinder their actually being of a certain and substantive amount, whereupon follows a corresponding amount or aggravation of moral unfairness in our resistance of them — known to God though unknown to ourselves. Enough if it be such as to challenge our serious attention, though it may not challenge our full and definite belief — and whether Natural Theology has to offer such a proof on the side of religion as enables us absolutely to decide the question, yet high is the function which {Page No. 96.} it discharges if it offer such a precognition as lays upon us the duty of farther entertaining it. 


For, after having traversed the field of Natural Theology and come to the ulterior margin of it, it will be found that though ignorant of all which is before us in Christianity, there will still be the same moving force carrying us forward to its investigations, as that which now makes it morally imperative upon us to prosecute the inquiry after God. If it be morally incumbent on us now to follow out the faintest incipient notices of a Deity, it Will be equally incumbent on us then to follow out the same notices of a profess, if at all a likely messenger from the sanctuary of His special dwelling-place. Now this is precisely what we shall come within sight of, after having finished the lessons of natural theism. There will then be offered to our observation a certain historical personage — bearing at least such a creditable aspect and such verisimilitude of a divine commission, that we cannot without violence to the ethical principles of the subject bid it away from our mind by an act of summary rejection. In the revealed, as well as in the natural religion, there is a, prima Jade evidence which, if not amounting to a claim on our belief, at least amounts to a claim on our attention. There may not instanter be put into our hands the materials of a valid proof, so as to challenge all at once from us a favourable verdict. But there will at least be put into our hands the materials of a valid precognition so as to challenge from us a fair trial. It may not announce itself; and what question whether hi science or in history ever does so? {Page No. 97.} — it may not announce itself as worthy of our immediate conviction; but it will announce itself as worthy of an immediate hearing. If there be not so much at the very first, of the certainty of truth as shall compel us to receive; there will at least be as much of the semblance of truth as should compel us to listen and to look after. And whether one looks to that expression of moral honesty which sits on the character and sayings of Jesus Christ, or cast a regard, however rapid and general, on the testimony and the sufferings and the apparent worth of those who followed in His train; and after this forbears a closer inquiry —he incurs the same delinquency of spirit which we have already charged upon him who can step abroad with open eye among the glories of the creation, yet remain unmoved by any desire of gratitude or even of curiosity to the question of a Creator. 


But there is one special advantage which we should not omit noticing in our study of the Natural prior to our study of the Christian argument. It may not prepare us for justly estimating the outward credentials of the embassy — but it will enable us to recognise other credentials in the very substance and contents of the embassy. After, in fact, that the theology of the schools has done its uttermost, it but lands us in certain desiderata which, if not met and not satisfied, leave nothing to humanity but the utmost destitution and despair. But if, on the other hand, these desiderata are met by the counterpart doctrines of Christianity — if the unresolved problems of the one theology do find their solution and their {Page No. 98.} adjustment in the revelations of the other theology, one cannot imagine a more inviting presumption in favour of Christianity — a presumption which may at length brighten into an overwhelming proof; and thus furnish conviction to a man who, though a perfect stranger to all erudition and history, may find enough of evidence struck out between his bible and his conscience to light him on his path. This is an internal evidence — the rudimental lessons of which we are in fact learning while we study the lessons of natural theology — a system which, with all its defects, performs a very high preliminary function, — seeing, that, by its dim and dawning probabilities, if not the obligation to believe, at least the obligation to inquire, is most rightfully laid upon us; and, that out of its very imperfections, an effective argument may be drawn in favour of that higher theology, in whose promises and truths every imperfection of nature meets with its appropriate and all-sufficient remedy. 


Whether, then, at the commencement of the one inquiry or of the other, let us enter upon it in the spirit so admirably delineated by Seneca in the following sentence: — “Si introimus templa compositi, si ad sacrificia accessuri vultum submittimus, si in omne argumentum modestiae fingimur; quanto hoc magis facere deberaus, cum de sideribus, de stelhs, de natura deorum disputamus, nequid teraere, nequid impudenter, aut ignorantes afi Brraemus, aut scientes mentiamur.”