The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 12
[extracts from letters]
I am quite aware of the mode in which the sacerdotalists deal with the promise and prophecy of Jesus that he would return in glory before that generation passed away. I know how, by a little hanky-panky, they deftly convert that terrible difficulty, that (one might have supposed) crushing disaster into a brilliant sham victory, with endless sham jubilations. But only sham, indeed. For it is simply not true that the Greek word genea, correctly rendered in the English version "generation," ever elsewhere bears the meaning of a "people" or "nation." No Sir—not in any Greek work extant—not in any Greek passage that can be found and quoted. Consult the highest Greek authority you can find, and (if he be not pledged to falsification by Ins métier) I think he will tell you that in no context elsewhere does genea signify anything but a generation of man. Most assuredly the companions and immediate followers of Jesus understood that he had pledged himself to return before all those who stood about him had tasted of death. "Were they not as likely as we to understand his meaning? Note, too, that in the passage (Matthew xxvi.) "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven," the precise meaning of the original Greek word is not hereafter but immediately.
Why, we should never have heard of Christianism but for the electrifying effect on the startled imaginations of the first converts produced by the positive announcement and daily expectation of the second advent and the end of all things. That was the sharp terror that gave first impetus to the new creed and set it rolling. At this time of day, however, it suits Christianists best to sing a palinode, and to explain that when Jesus said he would return before the death of that generation, while those about him were still alive, and immediately, he really only meant, "before the Jews ceased to exist as a separate people." And thereupon they burst into a gushing enthusiasm over the wonderful fulfilment of the word of our Lord. "Behold, say they, the unparalleled fact, the grand unmistakeable miracle of the continued existence of the Jews as a separate people, though scattered among all nations. They are a crushing evidence of the truth of Christianity and a continued pledge that the Lord Jesus is coming again." (By the way, former Christians thought it the holy thing to try to exterminate them.) Securely clothed inside and out "with self-deceit, they say all this and much more without blushing, without winking, in the face of the precisely parallel (miraculous?) facts—of the Parsees or Zoroastrians of Persia, scattered for some 1200 years among all the nations of India, yet keeping themselves as a distinct people even more rigidly than the Jews—of the gipsies, probably for nearly a thousand years—and, more remarkable than all, of the auchthonic aborigines of India, the Bhuls, Gonds, etc., who still preserve themselves distinct, with all their immemorial rites and customs, though the overflowing of India by the Hindoos (Aryan, Indo-Germanic race) occurred in times prehistoric.
Note that against Jesus' unfortunate unfulfilled prophecies of his immediate return Christianists had begun to hedge as early as the date of the writing of the gospel according to St. John (about A.D. 170), from, which all these predictions are carefully excluded, and in which occurs that most unpleasantly prevaricating passage in chapter xxi. 20-23—too obviously and transparently designed to quibble away the disconcerting puzzle-priest difficulty that John the last survivor of the apostles was dead, all "Divine" promises to the contrary notwithstanding.page 18
Some ingenious critics have defended the rendering of genea by "race" or "people" by appealing to the authority of our poet Pope, who, in his metaphrase of a passage in the Illiad (6th Book), has translated that word both "generation" and "race," thus:—
"Like leaves on trees the race of men is found,
Now green in youth, now withering on the ground;
Another race the following spring supplies,
They fall successive and successive rise;
So generations in their course decay,
So nourish these when those have passed away!"
Here, however, it is plain enough that both Homer used and Pope understood the word in the sense of generation after generation, though the exigences of English verse made the monosyllable "race" more convenient.
In any ease, Alexander Pope was not Pope Alexander, and therefore not infallible.
Then, which of the Harmonists has been able to bridge over the well-known historical interval of ten years (hiatus valdé deflendus!) between the death of Herod and the birth of Jesus? Facts here seem too stubborn for them. For it is certain that St. Luke tells us that Jeaus was born at the time of the taxing of Judea and Syria by the Roman Governor Cyrenius (or Quirinus). It is equally certain that after the death of Herod his son Archelaus reigned some nine years, when he was banished by the Imperial Government, those provinces definitively absorbed into the Roman Empire, and Cyrenius (see Josephus, Book 18, chap, i) especially deputed from Rome to make registration of the people and their substance, and to put them under the general Imperial system of taxation. Josephus, the historian, who lived and wrote a.d. 37 to 97, and who was so intimately acquainted with all the minutiae of the affairs of Judea, had never heard of the remarkable event of the slaughter of the Innocents by a king who was dead ten years before the poor things could, as contemporaries of Jesus, have been born.
With regard to the so-called remarkable prophecy in Genesis xlix. 10, the most eminent modern Hebrew critics have come to the conclusion that the word Shiloh means a place—a place of tranquillity, and that the correct rendering of the passage is "until Shiloh be come to, and to it shall the gathering of the people be."—E.g., see Bunsen's (Gennan) Bible for the people.
But after all, what folly it is to waste time and brain-power in so futile an occupation as minute verbal study of the legends of the old Jew semi-barbarians! What can it signify to us what they said, or wrote, or thought, with their poor undeveloped uneducated minds?
The primà facie view of the Superstition has always been quite sufficient for me. If the Supreme Soul of the Universe had willed to speak to us, externally, otherwise than through our own nature, it is incredible that He would have sent in his Divine message in a hole-and-corner manner, from out of very dark places in very dark days—or through the medium of miserable savages wandering through Arabian deserts, or of unlettered Jew paupers in Palestine, or of human manuscripts. Or that He would have spoken to one generation and then have left the report of the rumour of his having spoken to be filtered down through thousands of succeeding generations until, by the ever-deepening mists left by the lapse of time and the imperfection of the very nature of human testimony, any semblance of trustworthiness that the report might have had should be gradually obscured and obliterated. Or that the reported Divine message should have been full of self-contradictions, absurdities, incredibilities, mistakes, misstatements, and gross immoralities, and altogether of so vague, grotesque and unintelligible a nature as to be capable of bearing a thousand different interpretations, and so ill adapted to its intended effect as to have failed to have the slightest influence on the vast majority of mankind. Why, any so-called Divine message is self-con-demned by the very fact of its being possible to question its authenticity.
But for one thing the wonder would ever grow that so many men of strong, sound, cultivated minds, and, in all other respects, of logical habits of thought, should habitually become utterly fatuous, irrational, and imbecile, the page 19 moment there falls upon them the glamour of the gruesome Idol .of Bibliolatry. And that one thing that solves the marvel is a due appreciation of the enormous influence over the dawning intellect of each individual man of the credulous, uncritical (or rather, imperfectly educated) female mind. Naturally, our childish minds are first moulded by our mothers and nurses, who press them into a particular shape. And but a few have sufficient innate strength to recover from the cramp and spring into natural form. So it comes to pass that so many strong fellows never get out into the light of day, but remain ever groping and wandering and puzzling among the gloomy, mouldering cloisters of a crumbling fetish. A fetish which always seems moribund, but still not to be utterly exploded while men continue to keep an esoteric doctrine of intellectual freedom and rationalism for themselves, and an exoteric doctrine of Old Mother Hubbard and spiritual moonshine for the women. As it is, it is only by the women that all the churches are upheld. Priests and parsons are right in cultivating them so sedulously.
We crusaders of the nineteenth century against the infidels—"The Pagans suckled in a creed outworn"—who deny the gospel of science, will never achieve our triumph, we shall never finally hurl down the grim idol of supernaturalism until we popularise the inner and profounder thoughts of the scientific mind, and reveal them to the people at large, in language they can understand; until, no longer limited as an esoteric doctrine to the coterie of the highly educated few, something of the spirit of science be made to penetrate the masses. We can never cast down this Dagon so long as the popular mind is still clutched fast by the implicit conviction that whatever else may be doubtful, it is at least certain, that there must have been one set of miracles and of special acts of divine creative power when organic life—that is, when tree, beast and man—appeared on earth. Here is the very root of the matter—which must be grubbed up.
For, one miracle granted, what bounds to the miraculous? One breach of the absolute reign of natural law, and, at a stroke, the reign of law is abrogated.
At present the popular mind is wholly unconscious of the fact that no such idea of sudden and violent creation is ever entertained by men of science; by any holding rank in the vanguard of thought. They hold—and this is what we philalethists must strive to pierce the stolid general mind with, by pegging away with incessant iteration in plain phrases—they, the men of advanced thought, all hold that nothing has come to pass, per saltum, by sudden jump, but that all things have ever been, as now, governed by orderly and immutable physical law; slow, gradual, working through aeons of ages; that organic life as it is now is the result of evolution and development—of evolution in humblest forms, out of the inorganic elements by natural processes, and development gradual through enormous periods from those first low types.
To use a metaphor—halting and imperfect indeed, yet roughly serving the turn—as we know that oxygen and hydrogen, mingled in certain proportions, filliped by an electric spark, vanish, coalescing into an equal weight of water, so we hypothesize that certain other inorganic matters in combination, under the stimulus of some force—it may be of magnetic currents in ocean depths—coalesce into protoplasm, the basis of physical life.
The theories of development, variation and natural selection, roughly explain the rest. Says Darwin (Descent of Man, vol. II, 385.)," The main conclusion arrived at in this work is that man is descended from some less highly organised form. The grounds on which this conclusion rests will never be shaken, for the close similarity between man and the lower animals in embryonic development, as well as in innumerable points of structure and constitution, both of high and of the most trifling importance,—the rudiments which he retains, and the abnormal reversions to which he is occasionally liable,—are facts which cannot be disputed. They have long been known, but page 20 until recently they told us nothing with respect to the origin of man. Now, when viewed by the light of our knowledge of the whole organic world, their meaning is unmistakeable. The great principle of evolution stands up clear and firm, when these groups of facts are considered in connection with others, such as the mutual affinities of the members of the same group, their geographical distribution in past and present times, and their geological succession. It is incredible that all these facts should speak falsely. He who is not content to look, like a savage, at the phenomena of nature as disconnected, cannot any longer believe that man is the work of a separate act af creation."
Among men in any degree imbued with the noble, because truthful, spirit of modern science, no other theory is tenable, tolerable, possible than that of the derivation of man from lower animal types, and through them in series long-drawn-out from the humblest organic forms, and thence from the inorganic elements. It may indeed be affirmed that there is no other competing theory now extant. For the fantastic goblin Miracle has been chased before the growing light of Science, as vanishes some poor clown's terror-drawn ghost before the realistic brightness of the morning.
To him whoso mistaken human pride still fights against this theory, two or three questions may be propounded: From what has he himself, as an individual, been derived? Has he not been developed from a minute germinal vesicle, from a minute ovule? an ovule in no respect distinguishable from that of any other mammal? Is it not an indisputable fact that in his embryonic stages he has progressively assumed the forms of a fish, of an amphibian, of a dog, of a monkey? If such a past career be not degrading to the individual, why so to the species?
To belong to an ever-improving and ascending series, or to the degenerate progeny of perfect parents—which is the more cheering and ennobling view?
In all nature we believe that there have never been any sudden, miraculous—that is, natural creations, nor any events not growing naturally out of their antecedents.
All the processes of nature resemble what we understand by the word growing. Black Topsy's blankly ignorant theory of her own existence—"Guess I grow'd"—is the summary of all that the highest knowledge and the profoundest thought can teach us. "We bud out of the earth, we are its efflorescence. The inorganic world teems forth organic life at every pore; most probably the process of so-called creation still goes on even to-day, of which the not unfrequent appearance of new forms of insect blights and fungoids may be a token.
Says Shelley:—"Infinity within, infinity without belie creation." Recognising that there is nothing strictly logical in-the objection, nevertheless. I have always felt some immense force in it. Look at the infinity of minuteness! Consider how all the living tissues of all animals are pervaded by hosts of parasites, and the bodies of those parasites by their parasites. How
"Great fleas have less fleas,
And they, other fleas to bite 'em,
And those fleas have their fleas,
And so ad infinitum
Whether do such things seem to bear the impress of intelligent creation, or of a spontaneity of organisation in the inorganic?
As, without definite boundary, the animal kingdom merges into the vegetable, so, doubtlessly, does the organic world into the inorganic. As we get more light, even to us does the distinction between those two worlds seem to lessen. We no longer regard the inorganic as inert matter; we know there is 110 such thing as inert matter; that all things are permeated by force; that even a granite rock is in a violent state of force, and we begin to surmise that the force which pervades the universe is one and constant. If we must have a god, we may regard that force as god. But, different to our old anthropomorphic idols, a god without attributes conceivable by us. The views of philosophical materialists are, vulgarly, much misconstructed. We page 21 are wrongly interpreted to deny that there is anything in space but Mattered Force. But if we so dogmatised about the Unknowable we should be no better than theologians. What we maintain is, that all phenomena whatsoever, of which the human mind is or can be cognizant, are the resultants of the molecular Forces of Matter. But surely we are not supposed to pretend that we know in the least what matter is. For all that Man can possibly know, Matter may be Divine—may be to us only a manifestation of a Divine Force filling Infinity. But such speculations are entirely beyond the limits of philosophic inquiry, and utterly futile and inane.
Contrariwise, for all we know, organic life may be the highest specialised outcome of Matter and Force.
The spring-blossoms on the tree of two thousand years growth, are but slight and ephemeral things compared with the great trunk which bears them aloft, yet they are far superior to it, of higher and finer organisation, of more vivid activities, more nearly approaching to the state of consciousness.
As they are to the trunk, so we may be to the inorganic cosmos.
You maintain that you plainly discern throughout the physical world, especially in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, innumerable wonderful evidences of intelligent design! My dear fellow, permit me to say that I think you here fall into the old, old logical error of mistaking inference for observation. What we really do see is, only innumerable and wonderful instances of the adaptation of things. That those adaptations are the product of design is what we cannot possibly see: that would be merely a metaphysical and speculative inference which might or might not be true.
You say the inference is a good one, and quite the same as if one seeing a watch for the first time—and never having hoard of a watch before—should infer that it was certainly the work of human hands and human intelligence. There I differ from you entirely; it is not the same; the two cases are in nowise parallel; in the latter case you know for a certainty that man exists, and you have seen many other works which you experientially know to be his; and it is some analogy with his other, known works that would lead you at once to recognise his handicraft in the watch.
But, in the other case, you don't know for a certainty, or at all, of the existence of God: at least you cannot assume his existence here, as that is just the theorem you are seeking to prove. To make the cases at all parallel, there ought to be many other worlds experientially known to you to be made by God; then, reasoning by analogy, you would have a right to say, I recognise here also the hand of the god who, I know, made those other worlds. But the mystery of the adaptations which have the appearance of design, is part of the mystery of the universe, which is unique, and cannot be approached by any analogy, or by any comparison. No doubt these adaptations are marvellous, but more marvellous still would be our hitting, in the infinitude, upon their one real cause and true raison d'≖tre.
It always strikes me as something very arrogant and presumptuous, to assert that we can plainly discern the proofs of divine design; it is rating the power of the human intellect too high, thus to claim for it the ability of sounding by the plummet of an inference the depths of the Infinite—Unknown. Rather let us be humble here, and call ourselves Agnostics.
This is a problem of which a conclusive solution is unattainable, still, one on which the human mind cannot easily cease to speculate. At present and provisionally, until we know more, we may accept the Darwinian—as of all theories—the most satisfactory. Any materialistic is better than a supernatural exegesis; anything better than calling in the aid of a vague indefinite deus whom we have to invent for the occasion.
As the light of knowledge has advanced, the boundary of the chaotic realm of the supernatural has ever been pushed back. Says Büohner (Man in the Present, Past and Future), "Every science, and especially every philosophy. page 22 that seeks reality instead of appearance, truth instead of pretence, must necessarily be free from supernaturalism; otherwise it blocks-up against itself the path to its end, the truth. As soon, then, as in a philosophic book the word "God" occurs, except in criticism or reference, one may confidently lay it aside; in it will be found nothing capable of promoting the real progress of knowledge. In properly scientific works the word will be seldom met with; for in scientific matters the word "God" is only another expression for our ignorance; in like manner as are also on more special occasions the words 'vital force,' 'instinct,' 'soul,' etc." "We may well believe that, were our knowledge absolute, the supernatural chimera would have vanished utterly into the inanities.