Page images
PDF
EPUB

What are the probabilities that the faith in Immortality may escape the wreck of the supernatural creeds, and what are the spars and rafts, if any such there be, to which individually we may most safely cling ? To answer these questions it is necessary to cast a glance around us on the present attitude of thinking men on the matter. A few books and articles—among which I would specially direct the reader's attention to four of Mr. Stopford Brooke's admirable Discourses—give some hint of the currents of thought now passing over us; but there is little doubt that before long a much larger share of attention will be given to the subject, and that it will form in truth the battle-ground for one of the most decisive struggles in the history of the mental progress of our race.* Our standpoint at this moment is somewhat peculiar. We are losing the old ground, and have not yet found footing on the new.

The delusion which has prevailed so long in England, that we acquire such truths as the existence of God and our own immortality by means of logical demonstration, appears to be slowly passing away. We hardly imagine now, as English divines from Paley to Whately habitually took for granted, that if we convince (or "vanquish") a man in argument concerning them, his next step must infallibly be to embrace them heartily, as the Arabs did Islam, at the point of the sword. Especially we begin to perceive that we have been on a wrong track in dealing with the belief in a Future Life; nay, that we have been twice misled in the matter. The old popular creed having presented the doctrine to us as a matter of historical revelation, we were first trained to think of it as a fact guaranteed by a Book, and, accordingly, of course to be ascertained by the criticism of that Book. Our eternal life was secure if we could demonstrate the authenticity and canonicity of certain Greek manuscripts; but, were the Bible to prove untrustworthy, our only valid ground of hope would be lost, and the Immortality (which, in the face of Egypt and India, we were complacently assured had been only “ brought to light through the gospel") would be re-consigned to the blackness of darkness. From this primary mistake those who think freely in our day are pretty nearly emancipated. The “apocalyptic side of Christianity” has ceased to satisfy even those religious liberals who still take its moral and spiritual part as absolutely divine; and the halting logic which argued from the supposed corporeal resurrection of the Second Person of the Trinity, to the spiritual survival of the mass of mankind, has been so often exposed, that it can scarcely again be produced in serious controversy.*

* A miserable pseudo-scientific treatise, Le Lendemain de la Mort, by Louis Figuier, has already run through four or five editions in as many months. Simple readers ask for bread, and the Frenchman drops into their mouths a bonbon.

* That the Death of Christ—not his supposed Resurrectionfurnishes a strong argument in favour of Immortality, will be shewn by and by. Is it not probable that the great myth of his bodily revival owes its origin simply to the overwhelming impresWhile we have escaped, however, from the error of supernaturalism, a second and no less fatal mistake has risen in our way. The prevalent passion of the age for physical science has brought the relation of Physiology to the problem of a Future Life altogether into the foreground of our attention, as if it formed the only iinportant consideration; and of course on this side there was never any hope of a successful solution. Apologists of vivisectors made it indeed their excuse that those modern Sworn Tormentors were “seeking the Religion of the Future" in the brains of tortured dogs; but no one, I presume, ever seriously expected any other result than that which we behold. No ossiculum luz, no “infrangible bone” such as the Rabbins averred was the germ of the resurrection-body, no “indestructible monad” such as Leibnitz dreamed, has come to light; and no "grey matter,” or “hippocampus,” or multiplied convolutions of the human brain, are found to afford the faintest suggestion of a life beyond mortality. The only verdict which can be wrung from Science is, that the cessation of all conscious being at death is “Not proven.” She recognizes a mysterious somewhat termed “Life,” whose nature she has yet failed to ascertain, and concerning whose possible changes she is therefore silent. And further, having proved that no force is ever destroyed, she admits that it is open to conjecture that the force of the human Will may have its “conservation" in some mode whereby conscious agency may indefinitely be prolonged. But beyond this point, Science refuses to say one word to encourage the hope of Immortality. She remains neutral even when she forbears to utter oracles of despair. Nay, rather is she no prophetess at all, but may better be likened to some gaunt sign-post beside the highway of life, pointing with one wooden arm to the desolate waste, and with the other to fair fields and fresh pastures, but giving no response to our cry of anguish, Whither have our beloved ones gone ?

sion which the scene of the Passion must have made on the disciples, transforming their hitherto passive Pharisaic or Essene belief in a future life, into the vivid personal faith that such a soul could not have become extinct? In a lesser way the grave of a beloved friend has been to many a man the birthplace of his faith, and it is obvious that in the case of Christ every condition was fulfilled which would raise such sudden conviction to the height of passionate fervour. The first words of the disciples to one another on that Easter morn may well have been: “He is not dead. His spirit is this day in Paradise among the sons of God.” It was the simplest consequence of their veneration for him that they should feel such assurance and give it utterance with prophetic fire. In that age of belief in miracles, this new-born faith in the immortality of a righteous soul was inevitably clothed almost immediately in materialistic shape, and by the time the Gospels were written it had become stereotyped in traditions which we can class only as Jewish ghost-stories.

If this conjecture be admitted, we are absolved equally from the acceptance as historical of the monster-miracle of the New Testament, and from the insufferable alternative of recourse to some hypothesis of fraud, collusion or mistake. It cannot have been on any such base or haphazard incident that the reliance of Christendom has rested for eighteen centuries. Even with its blended note of human error, it is after all the reverberation of that earthquake which rent the hearts of those who watched on Calvary and tore the veil of mortality froin their eyes, which has ever since echoed down the ages and still sounds in our ears.

Nor will the analogies of Nature help us better than the physiological analysis of our own frames. The

fifty”-nay, rather the five thousand-seeds, of which "she scarcely brings but one to bear,” and the wrecks of the myriad forms of animal life which lie embedded in the rocks under our feet, reveal the lavishness of her waste. All the sweet old similes in which our forefathers found comfort-the reviving grain “sown in corruption and raised in power”—the crawling larva endued with wings as Psyche's butterfly-fail, when seriously criticised, to afford any parallel with the hopedfor resurrection of the human soul. Nay, Nature seems constantly to mock us by reviving in preference her humblest products, and bringing up year after year to the sunshine of spring the clover and the crocus and the daisy, while manly strength and womanly beauty lie perishing beneath the flowers; hid for ever in the hopeless ruin of the grave.

And, lastly, there are certain arguments which may be classed as Metaphysical, which were once generally relied on as affording demonstration of a future life. The value of these arguments, from Plato's downwards, —that the idea of a dead soul is absurd ; that the soul being “simple” and “one” cannot be “ dissolved;" that being “immaterial” it cannot die, &c.,—is extremely difficult to estimate. It is possible they may point to great truths; but it is manifest that they all hinge on certain assumptions concerning the nature of the soul and the supposed antithesis between mind and matter,

« PreviousContinue »