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The Secret of Our Spiritual Epoch

There is placed on record in Froude's biography of Thomas Carlyle, a note jotted down by the great philosopher for his own private remembrance, as follows:—

In the spiritual world, as in the astronomical, it is the earth that turns and produces the phenomena of the heavens. In all manner of senses this is true; we are in the thick of the confusion attendant on learning this, and thus all is at present so chaotic with us. Let this stand as an aphoristic saying? —or work it out with some lucidity of detail? Most true it is, and forms the secret of the spiritual epoch we are in.

Few "aphoristic sayings," perhaps none in modern days, are more pregnant, or of greater import.

There would seem to be three main attitudes of mind with regard to the great problems. The earliest way of thinking is seen in the most ancient writings, like the Book of Genesis. The thought in that book will be seen to be true, only if it is considered as poetic and empirical. For example, we find the earth regarded as the center of things, and the sun and moon as created with sole reference to it; in fact, as its lamps. God is conceived of as apart from Man, and as a being in manlike form. The world is ordered and judged as a wise patriarch orders and judges his tribe. Man is said to "fall" by attaining to knowledge. This is a profound truth, expressed inversely, just in the same way as it is an inverse truth to say that the sun rises. For the sunrise is in real fact only an effect of the earth's rotation, and the fall of Man is really his elevation, which seems to him at first to be wretched because of his attainment of conscience on arising from some nude state. The misery of sin is felt when sin ceases and conscience awakes.

The second stage of thought may be called the scientific. The early ideas of the Divine become elaborated, or upon consideration are found to be defective. With the progress of knowledge the earth can no longer be regarded so easily as central, and the thought of an infinite universe begins to be present. Many men fail to see any intelligent patriarchal government of the world, but they do perceive and investigate natural and physical laws, which seem to be universal. Philosophers like Epicurus seek ordinary explanations for all that happens, and while they do not deny that gods may exist, they deny that any such beings concern themselves with human affairs. The modern agnostic scientific man often uses similar language. Man at this point of thought has got beyond the simple and childlike report of what appears to be, and the primitive attempt to put in words what he feels about divine things. He has come into possession of his logical intellect, without at first a suspicion that it, too, may be fallacious; for the results of intellectual study confirm each other, and it is not seen at first how limited are the spheres to which the scientific mind is directed.

The third phase of thought is seen in the Gospels. We are there taught the words: "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you." This spiritual attitude corresponds (it seems to me) with a science that fully recognizes that the earth is not the center of the solar system, and that, if we are to judge by appearances, this planet is hardly to be accounted a sand-speck in the desert of worlds; for if that succession of worlds be infinite, then, in comparison with it, this planet is mathematically naught. Now the ordinary scientific man never pushes his conclusion quite so far as that. But it is needful to do so, because then only do we get (by revulsion) the true answer to the problem; for then we see with the greatest modern metaphysicians, and with the true philosophy of Christianity, that Man is central. We cease to look for a God only external. We seek to be ourselves in unison with all good. We recognize moral law not merely as external, as something imposed from without, but we cheerfully take it into our own being. We distinguish dim apprehensive piety from active reverent faith, and faith we account as something quite other than dogmatic assent. We are encouraged to seek furtherance in our right tasks from a Providence which would seem to operate in proportion to our confidence; and we are taught as the appanage of our human dignity to deliver ourselves from the dominion of fear, so that as inheritors of power and wisdom, it becomes natural for us to be just, humble and merciful.

When a new Astronomy deposes the earth from its center, but at the same time shows that the motions of the heavenly bodies are but apparent and are determined by its motion; when Metaphysics contemplates the infinity of Space and Time, but yet affirms that Space and Time are only forms of our own finite human thought, and have no real existence as such; and when Christianity teaches men humility and dependence, but yet relieves them from the bondage of fear by placing their dependence—even for daily food—in a Heavenly Father Whose nature they may share; then in each of these three cases, though by different instruments of mind and spirit, the same note is sounded.

No man can justly condemn or censure another,
Because indeed no man truly knows another.
—Thomas Browne

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