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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

The True Relations Of The Bible To Merely Human Science

Title:     The True Relations Of The Bible To Merely Human Science
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

It is sometimes said, that a religious messenger from God does not come amongst men for the sake of teaching truths in science, or of correcting errors in science. Most justly is this said: but often in terms far too feeble. For generally these terms are such as to imply, that, although no direct and imperative function of his mission, it was yet open to him, as a permissible function--that, although not pressing with the force of an obligation upon the missionary, it was yet at his discretion--if not to correct other men's errors, yet at least in his own person to speak with scientific precision. I contend that it was _not_. I contend, that to have uttered the truths of astronomy, of geology, &c.;, at the era of new- born Christianity, was not only _below_ and _beside_ the purposes of a religion, but would have been _against_ them. Even upon errors of a far more important class than errors in science can ever be--superstitions, for instance, that degraded the very idea of God; prejudices and false usages, that laid waste human happiness (such as slavery, and many hundreds of other abuses that might be mentioned), the rule evidently acted upon by the Founder of Christianity was this--Given the purification of the well-head, once assumed that the fountains of truth are cleansed, all these derivative currents of evil will cleanse themselves. As a general rule, the branches of error were disregarded, and the roots only attacked. If, then, so lofty a station was taken with regard even to such errors as really _had_ moral and spiritual relations, how much more with regard to the comparative trifles (as in the ultimate relations of human nature they are) of merely human science! But, for my part, I go further, and assert, that upon three reasons it was impossible for any messenger from God (or offering himself in that character) to have descended into the communication of truth merely scientific, or economic, or worldly. And the three reasons are these:--_First_, Because such a descent would have degraded his mission, by lowering it to the base level of a collusion with human curiosity, or (in the most favorable case) of a collusion with petty and transitory interests. _Secondly_, Because it would have ruined his mission, by disturbing its free agency, and misdirecting its energies, in two separate modes: first, by destroying the spiritual _auctoritas_ (the prestige and consideration) of the missionary; secondly, by vitiating the spiritual atmosphere of his audience--that is, corrupting and misdirecting the character of their thoughts and expectations. He that in the early days of Christianity should have proclaimed the true theory of the solar system, or that by any chance word or allusion should then, in a condition of man so little prepared to receive such truths, have asserted or assumed the daily motion of the earth on its own axis, or its annual motion round the sun, would have found himself entangled at once and irretrievably in the following unmanageable consequences:--First of all, and instantaneously, he would have been roused to the alarming fact, that, by this dreadful indiscretion he himself, the professed deliverer of a new and spiritual religion, had in a moment untuned the spirituality of his audience. He would find that he had awakened within them the passion of curiosity--the most unspiritual of passions, and of curiosity in a fierce polemic shape. The very safest step in so deplorable a situation would be, instantly to recant. Already by this one may estimate the evil, when such would be its readiest palliation. For in what condition would the reputation of the teacher be left for discretion and wisdom as an intellectual guide, when his first act must be to recant--and to recant what to the whole body of his hearers would wear the character of a lunatic proposition. Such considerations might possibly induce him _not_ to recant. But in that case the consequences are far worse. Having once allowed himself to sanction what his hearers regard as the most monstrous of paradoxes, he has no liberty of retreat open to him. He must stand to the promises of his own acts. Uttering the first truth of a science, he is pledged to the second; taking the main step, he is committed to all which follow. He is thrown at once upon the endless controversies which science in every stage provokes, and in none more than in the earliest. Starting, besides, from the authority of a divine mission, he could not (as others might) have the privilege of selecting arbitrarily or partially. If upon one science, then upon all; if upon science, then upon art; if upon art and science, then upon _every_ branch of social economy his reformations and advances are equally due--due as to all, if due as to any. To move in one direction, is constructively to undertake for all. Without power to retreat, he has thus thrown the intellectual interests of his followers into a channel utterly alien to the purposes of a spiritual mission.

The spiritual mission, therefore, the purpose for which only the religious teacher was sent, has now perished altogether--overlaid and confounded by the merely scientific wranglings to which his own inconsiderate precipitance has opened the door. But suppose at this point that the teacher, aware at length of the mischief which he has caused, and seeing that the fatal error of uttering one solitary novel truth upon a matter of mere science is by inevitable consequence to throw him upon a road leading altogether away from the proper field of his mission, takes the laudable course of confessing his error, and of attempting a return into his proper spiritual province. This may be his best course; yet, after all, it will not retrieve his lost ground. He returns with a character confessedly damaged. His very excuse rests upon the blindness and shortsightedness which forbade his anticipating the true and natural consequences. Neither will his own account of the case be generally accepted. He will not be supposed to retreat from further controversy, as inconsistent with spiritual purposes, but because he finds himself unequal to the dispute. And, in the very best case, he is, by his own acknowledgment, tainted with human infirmity. He has been ruined for a servant of inspiration; and how? By a process, let it be remembered, of which all the steps are inevitable under the same agency: that is, in the case of any primitive Christian teacher having attempted to speak the language of scientific truth in dealing with the phenomena of astronomy, geology, or of any merely human knowledge.

Now, thirdly and lastly, in order to try the question in an extreme form, let it be supposed that, aided by powers of working miracles, some early apostle of Christianity should actually have succeeded in carrying through the Copernican system of astronomy, as an article of blind belief, sixteen centuries before the progress of man's intellect had qualified him for naturally developing that system. What, in such a case, would be the true estimate and valuation of the achievement? Simply this, that he had thus succeeded in cancelling and counteracting a determinate scheme of divine discipline and training for man. Wherefore did God give to man the powers for contending with scientific difficulties? Wherefore did he lay a secret train of continual occasions, that should rise, by relays, through scores of generations, for provoking and developing those activities in man's intellect, if, after all, he is to send a messenger of his own, more than human, to intercept and strangle all these great purposes? This is to mistake the very meaning and purposes of a revelation. A revelation is not made for the purpose of showing to indolent men that which, by faculties already given to them, they may show to themselves; no: but for the purpose of showing _that_ which the moral darkness of man will not, without supernatural light, allow him to perceive. With disdain, therefore, must every thoughtful person regard the notion, that God could wilfully interfere with his own plans, by accrediting ambassadors to reveal astronomy, or any other science, which he has commanded men, by qualifying men, to reveal for themselves.

Even as regards astronomy--a science so nearly allying itself to religion by the loftiness and by the purity of its contemplations--Scripture is nowhere the _parent_ of any doctrine, nor so much as the silent sanctioner of any doctrine. It is made impossible for Scripture to teach falsely, by the simple fact that Scripture, on such subjects, will not condescend to teach at all. The Bible adopts the erroneous language of men (which at any rate it must do, in order to make itself understood), not by way of sanctioning a theory, but by way of using a fact. The Bible, for instance, _uses_ (postulates) the phenomena of day and night, of summer and winter; and, in relation to their causes, speaks by the same popular and inaccurate language which is current for ordinary purposes, even amongst the most scientific of astronomers. For the man of science, equally with the populace, talks of the sun as rising and setting, as having finished half his day's journey, &c.;, and, without pedantry, could not in many cases talk otherwise. But the results, which are all that concern Scripture, are equally true, whether accounted for by one hypothesis which is philosophically just, or by another which is popular and erring.

Now, on the other hand, in geology and cosmology, the case is stronger. _Here_ there is no opening for a compliance even with a _language_ that is erroneous; for no language at all is current upon subjects that have never engaged the popular attention. _Here_, where there is no such stream of apparent phenomena running counter (as in astronomy there is) to the real phenomena, neither is there any popular language opposed to the scientific. The whole are abtruse speculations, even as regards their objects, nor dreamed of as possibilities, either in their true aspects or their false aspects, till modern times. The Scriptures, therefore, nowhere allude to such sciences, either as taking the shape of histories, applied to processes current and in movement, or as taking the shape of theories applied to processes past and accomplished. The Mosaic cosmogony, indeed, gives the succession of natural births; and probably the general outline of such a succession will be more and more confirmed as geology advances. But as to the time, the duration, of this successive evolution, it is the idlest of notions that the Scriptures either have, or could have, condescended to human curiosity upon so awful a prologue to the drama of this world. Genesis would no more have indulged so mean a passion with respect to the mysterious inauguration of the world, than the Apocalypse with respect to its mysterious close. 'Yet the six _days_ of Moses!' Days! But is it possible that human folly should go the length of understanding by the Mosaical _day_, the mysterious _day_ of that awful agency which moulded the heavens and the heavenly host, no more than the ordinary _nychthemeron_ or cycle of twenty-four hours? The period implied in a _day_, when used in relation to the inaugural manifestation of creative power in that vast drama which introduces God to man in the character of a demiurgus or creator of the world, indicated one stage amongst six; involving probably many millions of years. The silliest of nurses, in her nursery babble, could hardly suppose that the mighty process began on a Monday morning, and ended on Saturday night. If we are seriously to study the value and scriptural acceptation of scriptural words and phrases, I presume that our first business will be to collate the use of these words in one part of Scripture, with their use in other parts, holding the same spiritual relations. The creation, for instance, does not belong to the earthly or merely historical records, but to the spiritual records of the Bible; to the same category, therefore, as the prophetic sections of the Bible. Now, in those, and in the Psalms, how do we understand the word _day_? Is any man so little versed in biblical language as not to know, that (except in the merely historical parts of the Jewish records) every section of time has a secret and separate acceptation in the Scriptures? Does an aeon, though a Grecian word, bear scripturally (either in Daniel or in St. John) any sense known to Grecian ears? Do the seventy _weeks_ of the prophet mean weeks in the sense of human calendars? Already the Psalms (xc.), already St. Peter (2d Epist.), warn us of a peculiar sense attached to the word _day_ in divine ears. And who of the innumerable interpreters understands the twelve hundred and sixty days in Daniel, or his two thousand and odd days, to mean, by possibility, periods of twenty-four hours? Surely the theme of Moses was as mystical, and as much entitled to the benefit of mystical language, as that of the prophets.

The sum of this matter is this:--God, by a Hebrew prophet, is sublimely described as _the Revealer_; and, in variation of his own expression, the same prophet describes him as the Being 'that knoweth the darkness.' Under no idea can the relations of God to man be more grandly expressed. But of what is he the revealer? Not surely of those things which he has enabled man to reveal for himself, but of those things which, were it not through special light from heaven, must eternally remain sealed up in inaccessible darkness. On this principle we should all laugh at a revealed cookery. But essentially the same ridicule, not more, and not less, applies to a revealed astronomy, or a revealed geology. As a fact, there _is_ no such astronomy or geology: as a possibility, by the _a priori_ argument which I have used (viz., that a revelation on such fields would counteract _other_ machineries of providence), there _can_ be no such astronomy or geology in the Bible. Consequently there _is_ none. Consequently there can be no schism or feud upon _these_ subjects between the Bible and the philosophies outside.

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Thomas De Quincey's essay: True Relations Of The Bible To Merely Human Science