Science and "Church Policy"

The Reader (December 1864)

[821] The attitude towards scientific thought adopted by our ecclesiastical dignitaries, by our statesmen, and by those political intriguers who embody the ideal set forth in "Vivian Gray" and "Coningsby," and who, though of little faith enough in most things, yet believe in the efficacy of a "church cry" for electioneering purpose, is worthy of serious attention.

Our leading statesmen–unless the Premier be an exception–neither know nor care anything about Science. Not long ago one of them, with characteristic frankness, told me as much, and hardly cared to throw out the excuse that "he was born in the pre-scientific age." Every hare-brained speculator, or enterprising charlatan, knows full well that the minister, whose patronage he solicits, would not be deferred from according it by the mere circumstance that his scheme bears upon its face some glaring contradiction to the law of gravitation, or the doctrine of the persistence of force. The minister is no less conscious of the fact, and, to protect himself, treats quacks and genius alike to the practical negative of official circumlocution–"under consideration."

Turn to the House of Lords and Commons, and we find the most prominent, and some of the most accomplished, of their members agreed in this, if in nothing else, that the notion of introducing some branches of physical science into the schooling of an English gentleman is a mere mischievous chimera.

They urge, justly and wisely enough, that the value of education lies in its training, rather than in its teaching; and therefore (they naively ask) what possible mental discipline is to be obtained from learning to use the lenses and the prisms, the wires and the crucibles, the forceps and the scalpels of the man of science? In the same spirit we have seen enlightened public writers settle the whole question of the advisability, or inadvisability, of scientific teaching by the crushing inquiry, "How will an Eton boy be the better for knowing how to make a pump? Doubtless it is a good thing to know how to make a pump; but it is also a good thing to know how to make shoes; and yet you do not propose to introduce shoemaking as a branch of liberal education." And, as this argument constituted the climax of a well-polished essay, it is clear that the essayist really did think it relevant and imagined that the rest of the world would appreciate it.

When enlightened statesmen and thoughtful public writers hold such views, it is not wonderful to find Mr. Disraeli adopting a grotesque imitation of them. For Mr. Disraeli is an actor of astonishing power and versatility. You read his novels and wonder that something so like genius can be achieved by mere versatile cleverness; you listen with equal surprise to that instinctively dexterous rhetoric–so like oratory–which makes the most threadbare speech, or even a secondhand one, look better than new. And, on perusing his latest effort, just published for the benefit of a wider world than the Society for the Augumentation of Small Livings, marvel rises to admiration at the excellently simulated earnestness with which the rhapsodist of that misty sentimentality, the Asian mystery, reproves "picturesque eloquence" and "the lucubrations of nebulous professors;" while admiration soars to ecstasy when the great mime "presents," as Bottom would say, the man of science–prattles of the "bracing effects of original research," and warns us against "secondhand knowledge."

So well was it all done that, if the printed version of the speech is to be trusted, nobody laughed. Even the Right Rev. Prelate in the chair, among whose many graces the keen enjoyment of a joke is not the least, preserved his gravity, and listened patiently, as the fervid speaker went on to explain the relations of Science to the Church.

In substance, what Mr. Disraeli tells us on this head is, that philosophers are all very well in their proper places–making steam-engines and telegraphs and railroads, and adding "to the convenience of life and to the comfort of them." But let there be no mere "tattle-man." Let them stick to this, and Mr. Disraeli is kindly prepared "to do full justice to about Science" in any other capacity, or his wrath and scorn will know no bounds.

Of course, Mr. Disraeli's real, or assumed, opinions on questions of this kind are of no importance in themselves. We draw attention to them because it really is a wonderful phenomenon that one, so practised in adapting himself to the humour of an assembly, should have felt that patronizing Science for its froth and scum–its so-called practical results–and scorning its essence and the foundation of its human worth was, in the year of grace 1864, a safe card to play before bishops, dons, and members of Parliament assembled in conclave in one of the great seats of learning of this country.

When the laity, who have no professional prepossessions to overcome, deal thus strangely with Science, we must not look for better things from ecclesiastics. Amiable and liberal prelates, unable to discern any true savour of diabolic agency in the uniformly beneficent and ennobling working of scientific thought, honestly wishing it well, and yet genuinely afraid of it, plaintively ask why it cannot be content. "We have thrown overboard our Astronomy, our Physics, our Geology, our Chronology and Ethnology, one after another; we have almost made up our minds to sacrifice three-fourths of our History, and to go shares with you in Ethics; we even admit–oh, philosophers!–that "a religion can have no claim to be accepted as coming from God which contradicts or overlooks the grand principles of immutable morality" (which can be determined only by a strict application of scientific method)–and yet you are not content. What, then, do you mean to leave us?" is the substance of an admirable address recently delivered at Edinburgh.

Suave and illiberal prelates, on the other hand, shrewder–though, it may turn out, not wiser–than the excellent Bishop of London, disbelieve in the possibility of compromise, and, apparently sympathizing with the spirit, if not ready to abide by the letter, of the last encyclical epistle of the Bishop of Bishops, think to stay the spirit of the age by copious malediction of its products, tendencies, and representative men.

Such seems to us to be a fair view of the present attitude of those who govern the State and the Church towards Science and her methods. But what of the other side, how do the men of science view the question? So far as we can judge, they seem in the humour to take the proffered position. Science exhibits no immediate intention of signing a treaty of peace with her old opponent, nor of being content with anything short of absolute victory and uncontrolled domination over the whole realm of the intellect. Her champions ask why they should falter? Which of the memorable battles that have been fought have they lost? When have they ever retreated from ground they have once occupied, or surrendered a duly fortified stronghold? Every invading host has its guerillas and skirmishers, who sometimes advance into untenable positions and are beaten back; or burn, plunder, and ravish to the utter disgrace of themselves and their cause, and, justly enough, fall into the hands of the provost-marshal. But their rout is no retreat of the main army, and their discomfiture is a source of strength rather than weakness.

And so, if, as the orator of Oxford tells us, the scoffing light-horsemen of the eighteenth century have been beaten off, and the old traditions have emerged from the smoke not much hurt, is that a repulse of Science? Surely not; for the broken squadrons of Voltairean cossacks fly only to disclose the heads of solid columns of warriors, disciplined in long and successful struggles with nature, firm of purpose, and armed with weapons which are unpoisoned and slay effectually. And so strangely are circumstances altered, that it seems to many as if the Voltaireans had taken shelter among the enemy's ranks; while the spirit of faith and reverence, and the will to die rather than to lie, had left the theological and entered the scientific camp.

The philosophy of the present day, indeed, is neither scoffing, nor presumptuous, nor destructive. Since the world began, there never has been so deep a reverence for truth, so keen a sense of the fallibility and limitation of the intellect of man, so earnest a desire to build up some theory of this wonderful universe that cannot be shaken by the questioning of a child, so profound a yearning

"Im Gutes, Ganzen, Wahren, resolut zu leben,"

as among the scientific workers of this age and generation.

Never has there been so clear an appreciation of the unity of all phenomena, and hence of the absurdity of both materialism and spiritualism. Never has the consequent necessary identity of the methods by which truth of all kinds must be attained been so clearly obvious as it is now. And, therefore, never has the attempt to set bounds to scientific inquiry and to the extension of scientific method, into every subject concerning which a proposition can be framed, proclaimed itself at once so fatuous and so impotent as now.

Religion has her unshakeable throne in those deeps of man's nature which lie around and below the intellect, but not in it. But Theology is a simple branch of Science, or it is nought; and that "Church Policy" which sets it up against Science is about as reasonable, as would be the advocacy of the claims of the rule of three to superior authority over arithmetic in general.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University