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we sustain to the Author of our being, the rule, if any, which he has prescribed for our conduct, and the conditions on which our endless happiness or misery is suspended?
On all these subjects we now possess extensive information, but there is a very mistaken idea prevalent as to the proportion of our knowledge which is derived from mere reason. Some very erroneously imagine that whatever such men as reject the bible, believe, may be regarded as the pure product of reason. The scriptures have shed an immense mass of light over the whole christian world, mingling with our political institutions, our social relations and even the instructions of the nursery. Hence from our earliest infancy we imbibe principles and adopt opinions, which in after life are never erased from the mind even of the veriest infidel. And as no man can possibly remember whence he derived all his ideas in every past moment of his life, whether from the bible, or from others who are indebted for them mediately or immediately to revelation, or whether they were original suggestions of his own mind; it is certain that we cannot determine by recollection what portion of our knowledge is the product of reason. It has been customary in this emergency, to resort to such heathen nations as had not the bible, for fair specimens of what unassisted reason could teach. But although such an investigation presents the powers of reason in a very humiliating light, as truth is our object we are compelled to say, that it is yet more favourable than truth admits. Some doctrines are so important to man, so intimately interwoven with all his wishes, his hopes and his fears, that if once known, they could never be entirely forgotten. We will not here say that some such were originally revealed by God to Adam, for this would be presupposing the truth of Revelation which is yet to be proved; but we may confidently assert that several such truths, particularly the existence of a God, can be traced more or less distinctly through all the recorded ages of heathen antiquity. And as there is no evidence of their having
been discovered at any particular time, the probability is that they really did reach back to the creation and were then revealed to man by God himself. This supposition is rendered still more probable, because reason did not gradually improve these doctrines, as might have been expected if she at first discovered them but some of the ancient pagans held them in greater purity than many in modern days. Nor should it be forgotten that Plato in all probability saw the writings of Moses in Egypt, whither he had travelled in search of knowledge; that Zoroaster, whose religious system spread so extensively over the Eastern nations, was probably of Jewish extraction and was certainly acquainted with the Old Testament; and that the Jews themselves, in their various dispersions, as well as by their commercial intercourse with other nations, spread abroad a knowledge of their religion. Since therefore all nations learn some of these doctrines by tradition from their ancestors, and the best systems of heathen philosophy were also indebted more or less to revelation; it is evident that in the opinions of no nation do we see a fair specimen of reason's unaided power. Our only inquiry must be, what evidences can reason discover for the truth of these doctrines already known to her, and what can she herself discover concerning our nature and relations in the present life. And first
a) As to ourselves: When shutting out from our view every thing around us, we direct our attention to our own structure, we find that we are beings possessed of certain bodily organs, wonderfully and fearfully made. Connected with this body we find something which thinks, feels, and acts, called mind, which in all its known properties, is radically different from matter; though in its operations as totally dependent on the body, as is a musician on his instrument, for the delightful combinations of sound which he produces. Through our bodily senses, we acquire a knowledge of external objects: and we are so constructed, that we naturally and unavoidably regard the
testimony of our senses as true. No man ever practically disbelieved it, not even those infidels who in theory have professed to do so. And our different faculties are so many additional sources of ideas. We find that the truths with which we thus become acquainted, have more or less intrinsic tendency to produce conviction; and that we have the ability to investigate the relative degree of this tendency, that is, the strength of evidence. This evidence is in many cases so strong, that, if fairly and impartially weighed, we cannot resist the conviction of the truths which it tends to establish. Who could disbelieve one of the plainest demonstrations of Euclid, after having carefully examined and understood the proof on which it rests? Who could doubt the guilt of a murderer when attested by a dozen of the most credible, disinterested eyewitnesses on earth? or when seen with his own eyes? Why then it may be asked do not all men agree in the belief of Christianity, and of every other truth which some consider fully established? The reply doubtless is, that man was created a free agent, and as such has a will, a faculty, which, however men may differ in their views of its operations, all must admit to be radically different from the other faculties of the soul. If its operations were necessary and dependent in the same sense as those of perception, memory and judgment; a man would be no more to blame for resolving to steal a purse of gold, than for having perceived a thief in the act of stealing it, or for remembering that it was stolen some time ago. In the exercise of this faculty of the soul, we can avoid conviction of a truth by resolving not to examine its evidences, or by approaching the investigation with strong prejudices against the truth, or by examining only part of the evidence. And after we have examined a subject and become convinced of its truth, we can resolve to disobey that conviction, however strong it may be. Hence men may be voluntary unbelievers; and intellectual believers of Christianity, may voluntarily live in practical disobedience to its precepts. Yet the faculty for investigating truth,
which God has given us, seems to point out such investigation as our duty; and as the result of impartial investigation depends not upon ourselves, but on the strength of evidence which God has placed within our reach for or against any point under examination, obedience to the result of such impartial investigation must be our duty. In short, man is a moral agent, his duty is sincere and uniform obedience to the strongest evidence, that is, to truth; and a better definition of virtue than this could not easily be given.
Thus constructed, when we look around us on the universe, what can we learn?
b) That there is a God, we were taught in our infancy. Whether we could have discovered this doctrine if we had never learned it from others is doubtful. Since it is known to us we can see every where in the universe abundant evidences of its truth. Nay so clear are these truths that it is impossible for any good man to disbelieve them. And we very much doubt whether any wicked men in a christian country can sincerely and habitually and confidently disbelieve it. But that our ability to discern the evidences of a truth after it is known, by no means proves that we could ourselves have discovered it; is exemplified in our daily experience. Take for instance some modern discovery in physical science, some newly invented machine of real value. A man of ordinary mind, after examining it, can see and prove its excellence, and wonders that he did not long ago himself make the discovery; yet, thousands of years passed over the heads of men, before any one of them made, or rather stumbled upon it. The experiments, in the case of several men who were lost in infancy and grew up wild in the woods, as also those of the deaf and dumb, though the circumstances were adverse to the full developement of mental power, go far to corroborate our doubts as to the ability of unaided reason to deduce from the works of nature the existence of a God.
Nor, when the existence of God is known, can reason certainly establish his unity. The apparent elemental discord in the world, the commixture of good and evil, has led some to conjecture the existence of two conflicting superior powers. Reason may indeed look abroad in the universe and see the harmony of all its various parts. She may see the striking adaptation of the atmosphere to the lungs of man and other animals; she may perceive how admirably the influence of the sun, moon and stars is suited to the situation and necessities of man; nay, she may catch a ray of light from the most distant, visible fixed star, and prove that it is subject to the same laws of reflection and refraction, which govern the light of a candle; but all this proves only unity of design, evinces only agreement in the plan of the universe, and not that it was created by one superior being. Accordingly, as is well known, many among the most enlightened Pagan nations both ancient and modern, believed in either a duality or plurality of deities of various characters and orders.
c) But what can reason teach us concerning our relations to a superior power? That we are responsible for our actions she may indeed render probable; but as her acquaintance with the moral attributes of God is very unsatisfactory, she is unable to point out with certainty the course of conduct most pleasing to him. Though in the constitution of our physical nature, vice is often productive of pain and sickness; yet, in the course of events, how often do the wicked prosper, whilst the good man's way is proverbially rough and thorny? Why are the righteous and the wicked, subject alike to almost every variety of disease? Why are they alike swallowed up by the devastating earthquake?
That man is a sinner, is known to reason, and was acknowledged in affecting terms by many heathens. But why he was
1 Cicero, 2 Tuscul. III. 1. says, "Simulac editi in lucem, et suscepti sumus, in omni continuo pravitate et in summa opinionum