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ART. III. – THE RELIGION OF THE PRESENT.
1. Plan of the Creation: or, Other Worlds, and Who Inhabit Them.
By Rev. C. L. HEQUEMBOURG. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and
Company. 1859. 2. Man and his Dwelling-Place. An Essay towards the Interpretation
of Nature. New York: J. S. Redfield. 1859.
The former of these books is an ordinary, though the most recent, specimen of the old theological method of treating those great problems of truth and destiny which constantly solicit the human mind. The phenomena of the world and the experience of man form the matter to be explained, - to be explained so as to answer our fears, fix our hopes, and illustrate our duties. The all-containing data from which the Rev. C. L. Hequembourg thinks the desired solutions can be wrung, by ingenious juxtaposition and powerful pressure, are the traditions of the theologians and the words of Scripture. At this oft-repeated process he labors with commendable earnestness; but the result is neither novel nor brilliant. The method is so vicious, that the product cannot fail to be worthless. It is ludicrous and painful to see an empiric teacher briefly condescending with feeble glance and grasp to the mighty treasures of philosophic science; and when they have eluded his incompetent and untrained powers, to see him complacently turn from them to read the entire history and fate of the universe in a few obscure texts of the Bible. Mr. Hequembourg says: “God permitted sin to break out in this restricted sphere, where he could govern it, for the great purposes of his wisdom. Man is the being who is to emerge in successive generations from this world, to overspread the universe with his hardly acquired wisdom and virtue. The universe is in its infancy, and man is the only being hitherto created capable of occupying the realms of nature. Christ, not Copernicus or Newton, is the true teacher of astronomy, and the tube of a telescope cannot begin to penetrate space as a text of the Scriptures does.” (pp. 384-386.)
Thus, at the touch of a sentence in Genesis, geology explodes. Before a verse from the book of Joshua, an allusion
from the Psalms, a paragraph from the Epistle to the Romans, a metaphor from the Apocalypse, a parable from the first Gospel, the laws of matter are abnegated, the sublime structure of science crumbles, psychology becomes a formless rack of mist, history is a falsehood, philosophy a piece of folly, and all reason a process of deceit. Is it not high time that sensible men ceased chasing these preposterous phantoms, ceased mining in these vacant theories of theological speculation, and turned to the solid realms of reality, turned to the rich veins of fact everywhere at hand? The origin, law, and meaning of the world, the nature, duty, and destination of man, are not to be discerned by facing backwards to old myths, or forwards to lurid prophecies. They are to be found by conscientiously studying, in the spirit of experimental science, the immediate substances and phenomena of our lives, the theatre in which we live, and the relations between them.
The second book named at the head of this article,-published anonymously in England, — is a thoughtful, interesting, fresh essay, somewhat in the spirit just indicated. It is not sufficiently resolute; nor is it wrought out with adequate breadth and thoroughness. But it points in the right direction, is earnest, suggestive, pervaded by a most amiable and admirable spirit.
With these brief criticisms we shall pass on, omitting to give an epitome of “ Other Worlds, and Who Inhabit Them," and of “ Man and his Dwelling-Place,” — works which our readers can easily obtain for themselves, — thinking we shall do better service by presenting some thoughts on the antagonism between the spirit of the prevalent theology and the spirit of science, the difference between official religion and experimental religion, — the religion of tradition, which hollowly overarches the present, supported by the piers of past and future, and the religion of insight, which livingly rises from the divine truths of the present, and thence diffuses itself over, past and future. The topic, therefore, to which we address ourselves is, the theological inferences to be drawn from the presentness of life, or the religion of the here and the now.
The past was infinitely momentous while we were in it; the future will be so when we are in it; but now that we are here,
and that life, with its experienced realities, and with its offering possibilities, is here, the present alone should be regarded as really of commanding importance. To an unbiassed thinker, obviously, the most pressing inquiry is not, Whence came I? — is not, Whither go I? — but is, Being here, what am I to do? What is man here for? Under what conditions does he exist ? What obligations are laid on him? What laws govern the system in which he resides, and regulate the history which he creates ? What temptations assail him, and how may they be vanquished? What opportunities are offered to him, and how may he improve them? What penalties threaten him? What rewards invite him? What are the best biographic ideals for him to study? What are the sources of misery? What are the secrets of happiness? What are the undeveloped possibilities of the social state? It is evident, upon a little reflection, that these problems are the vital ones to be taken up, to be scrutinized on every side, and to be settled by all helps. The life that now is, with what enters into it or flows from it, with the premises it implies and the inferences it yields, — this, the very sphere of man's living interests, certainly claims his notice more than anything else can.
It is astonishing how generally the teachers of mankind have refused to follow this simple course of investigation, and with perverse ingenuity have sought out other subjects, other methods, of study. Nearly all the great philosophers and religionists of the world have occupied themselves, not with the particular facts of human life, but with the enigmas of general being; not in discovering practical means to improve the experience of man, but in contriving abstruse systems of metaphysics and dogmatics. And whenever they have endeavored to explain the mysteries, and unfold the duties and uses, of the present scene of humanity, it has been by adopting some recondite hypothesis of the past and of the future, creating some fanciful scheme of theology which would seem to meet the demands of the case. They have thus directly reversed the legitimate order of procedure. Leaving the familiar sphere of things just at hand unnoticed and despised, they have taken a long departure on the wings of imagination, and, seizing hold of uncertain abstractions, have laboriously constructed a theory
of the causes from which the present sprang, or of the unknown details in which it issues. Then in forced conformity to that theory they would interpret the facts of life, and order the conduct of man. The true way, on the contrary, is to begin with an investigation of the obvious realities of the present life as it is, seek to analyze and comprehend the meaning and the just claims of that which is directly before and within us. If we would. rear a temple to the skies, we must commence building on the earth; the clouds furnish but a poor foundation for any solid structure. We can reach the far, outlying realms of truth only by passing through the sphere which closely surrounds us, only by mastering the intelligible rudiments within the enveloping world of our present senses and direct thought. By a clear acquaintance with immediate facts one will be much more likely to detect clews and form correct conclusions as to their origin and their purport, than he will be to arrive at an explanation of present facts from an arbitrary theory of what preceded them and what will follow them. That is to say, the realities of the present are not to be studied in their distant causes and effects, but causes and effects are to be sought through a study of present conditions, circumstances, events, tendencies, – things lying within our experimental reach. While our feet cling to the warm earthhome, our eyes, turned to the far-removed night-heavens, clearly spell out the sparkling constellations: but when we leave the ground, and sail in airy car above the mountains, as we rise, the atmosphere grows thin and cold, and the starry space grows dark and void. If we would know the origin of man, we must examine the facts of his present constitution. If we would discover the destination of man, we must dissect the prophetic germs of his present life. By meditating on the fall of an apple at his side, Newton grasped the awful secret that knits the boundless maze of worlds in one symmetric whole. By meditating a thousand years on the depths of the Milky Way, he would not have learned the law of the falling apple at his side.
But even if a knowledge of the near and the experienced yielded no help in unfolding the remote, the past, and the future, still our immediate lot on earth ought to be the foremost object of our attention, because we are all here, and our powers and duties are all here with us. The practical botanist or the cultivator of trees ponders not so much the earths whence vegetation springs, not so much the finer elements in which it disappears, but rather searches the peculiar characteristics of the vegetation itself, and the ways of improving it, and the uses to be made of it. So man should rather occupy his faculties in comprehending the truths and obligations and possibilities of the present life, in rightly estimating the scope and claims of the passing hour, than in curiously prying after remote secrets which bear no practical part in deciding his daily happiness or in moulding his final destiny. The past is dead and gone. The future is not all. The present life, too, is an imminent and momentous reality, - is a tremendous hazard, the alternatives of whose contingencies hang over hell, and lay hold upon heaven, — is a prolific cause, the trails of whose consequences will traverse eternity. This world is not a punishing-place nor a waiting-place. It is a working-place; a place where spiritual athletes are to be trained, to start from the barriers, unencumbered and eager, on the endless race towards the goal of the Divinity. To all practical intents, the culminating point and power of being are now, for ever in the present. There is not, and throughout the everlasting abyss of possibilities there never will be, any other time than a momentary but continuous now. The present day, between the days departed and the days to come, the present life, between the eternity behind and the eternity before, should attract our thoughts, enlist our faculties, feed our desires, and prepare our souls.
This truth has not been appreciated and acted on as it should be. It is violated to an extent truly remarkable. Memory and hope, those mighty enchanters of the soul, giving us the free range of past and future, several causes combine to make us dwell too much in them, underrating and neglecting the present. First, it is less inviting, it is more arduous, to seize the literal and sober realities of the day, and reflect on them, and trace their lessons, and conform our feelings, actions, and plans to them, and to the morals which they inculcate, than it is to brood over the bygone in dreams of vague luxury, and to roam in lawless fancy through the time to come,