Professor Huxley on the Evolution of Theology

by R. H. Hutton
The Spectator (1886)
Criticisms on Contemporary Thought and Thinkers, vol. I

[326] Professor Huxley's article in the Nineteenth Century for March on "The Evolution of Theology" is not, I think, worthy of his great ability. There is little in it that properly justifies the word "evolution " at all, and it is marked by a scornful tone of contempt for those who are likely "to meet with anything they dislike " in his pages, which is hardly conceived in good taste. Still I am not amongst those who think that "in dealing with theology we ought to be guided by considerations different from those which would be thought appropriate if the problem lay in the province of chemistry or mineralogy," except, indeed, so far as the difference of province involves necessarily a difference of method. I should be eager to maintain that there is as genuine evolution in theology, as there is in any human science. If Mr. Spencer is right in holding that the development of organisation in general, means the gradual increase in the correspondence between the organ and that which environs it, it is as true of the development of theology, as of any [327] department of human life. But I do not hold, as some evolutionists appear to hold, that there is no real object external to man into a more complete correspondence with which the evolution of theology brings us; nor does that appear to me an opinion proper to true evolutionists at all. On the contrary,

I hold that there is such an object; that that object is the great Being infinitely above us, in whom all the tentatives towards a more complete correspondence between us and him have originated, and from whom they go forth ; and that the Bible, though it undoubtedly is what Professor Huxley calls it, a literature and not a book has its unity in the fact that it is the literature of a race specially educated by that great invisible Being himself, to perceive that righteousness is of his essence, and that no "correspondence" between man and God is possible except on condition of a greater and greater reflection by man of that essence. Why it should be held, as it seems to be held by some of the evolutionists that while every other regular development of man's nature issues in a more delicate and a more comprehensive "correspondence" between man and the universe outside him, theology should be the one exception in which the development of our mind only brings upon us a liability to greater and greater allusions, I cannot conceive. The nerve which is at first only dimly sensitive to light, is supposed by the evolutionists to emerge at last in that wonderful combination of all kinds of co-operating powers, the eye of man. The nerve, which is at first but dimly sensitive to the vibrations of the atmosphere, is supposed by the evolutionists to emerge at last in that wonderful organ to which the oratorio speaks in mystic language such as the highest mind cannot [328] adequately interpret. The feeble faculty of counting on the fingers is supposed by the evolutionists to develop into that wonderful calculus by which we compute the path of the comet, and weigh the sun itself in a balance. Can it possibly be true that the mind and the conscience are exceptions to this law of the senses and the judgment? Is the mind alone not in correspondence "with the law of the environment, when it discerns purpose in the universe? Is the highest aspect of man's mind, his sense of duty, not in correspondence with the spirit of the environment when it discerns righteousness and purity at the heart of the universe? If so, surely man is indeed what some of the evolutionists hold,–what, indeed, Professor Huxley seems to hold,–a worshipper of magnified ghosts. But why sensitive nerves should bring us true knowledge of what is outside us, and sensitive consciences false knowledge of what is outside us, it passes my comprehension to say.

Nevertheless, those who read the article on "The Evolution of Theology" will find him, as it seems to me, extremely anxious to make the most of what may fairly be called the crude theology of the earlier parts of the Old Testament, not with a view to showing how it develops into what is greater and nobler, but with a view, on the contrary, to dwelling with a kind of triumph on its poverty. I have no objection to admit to the fullest extent the poverty of these elements. I think it quite probable that, as Professor Huxley holds, the writer of the third chapter of Genesis conceived the Lord God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day as a figure in the form of man. I believe it to be true that in the earlier books of the Bible, Jehovah–(why does Professor Huxley insist on the pedantic Jahveh?) [329] –was conceived only as a much mightier God than the gods of the heathen,–a mightier being of the same order. I have no objection to admit that in the earlier days of Israel it was supposed,–as Isaiah certainly shows evidence that it was supposed, or he would not so passionately denounce the impression, –that God took delight in the burnt sacrifices. In a word, nothing can be truer than that the Bible shows a steady evolution of the conception of God, from the early chapters of Genesis to the revelation of Christ. If it be true that the teraphim of the Israelites were something like the lares of the Romans, I am not startled by it. But what surprises me in Professor Huxley's essay is the apparent inability to see the vast gulf between the most inchoate forms of Israelite theology and the foolish superstitions of the natives of Torres Straits,– whom, by the way, he and his friend very unjustifiably did their best to confirm in the most foolish of those superstitions, simply in order that they might avail themselves of them to widen their own anthropological knowledge,–or of the natives of the Tonga Islands. Nothing can be more instructive than the comparison between these superstitions and the rudest of all the forms of Israelite theology, as showing not only that the latter had the power of firmly impressing spiritual truth from which whole nations have derived their highest elements of civilization, but also that the earliest germs of the Jewish theology were far beyond what they could have been, had they not been developed ab initio by an impulse not from within, but from above. Take what Professor Huxley calls the "freshest,"–meaning, I think, the oldest and rudest,–of the "fossiliferous strata" in the Books of Judges and Samuel, [330] and compare them with the superstitions which he relates with such gusto as those in which his friend and he confirmed the natives of the Torres Straits, and which Mariner discovered in the Tonga Islands. We seem to be in a totally different world. From the beginning to the end of Jewish history we find the deep, though ever-growing, belief in a personal power, who from the first "killeth and maketh alive bringeth down to Sheol and bringeth up;" who sets his brand upon the murderer's forehead; who tasks to the utmost the love of him whom he recognized as his friend; who gives a strict moral law to a licentious people, by which they are to be severed from the rest of the nations; who expects his people to recognize the invisible impress of his spirit on the hearts of their judges and prophets, and not only to recognize it, but to recognize also the disloyalty to it of which those judges and prophets were often guilty; who chooses the king most after his own heart, and then sternly rebukes him when he breaks his law; who inspires the noblest devotional lyrics which the world has ever known, and the noblest prophecies of a divine universalism, amidst the narrowest of fierce race prejudices; and who finally reveals himself in the one character which, after two thousand years, even sceptics treat as raised so high above the level of humanity, that we can only toil after it through the ages with a growing sense of its hopeless superiority to human aspiration. That is what I call "evolution," and evolution of the highest kind. Do the superstitions of the Torres Straits, to which Professor Huxley's friend and he himself lent their sanction, show any sign of an evolution such as this? [331] Do the superstitions of the Tonga Islands develop into a great history and divine order such as this? They are, in fact, what Professor Huxley calls them, "ghost-worship." But, whatever he may say, there is absolutely no sign of ghost-worship in Israel, unless Saul's visit to the witch of Endor,–a visit which on the face of it was unfaithful to all the higher principles of his own life, and of the law in which his faith had resulted,–is to be so called. Never was a paper with a noble title so disappointing as that in which Professor Huxley endeavours to minimize the true significance of Jewish theology by grouping together all the poorer elements in the Israelite religion, and showing their (very slight) affinity to the savage superstitions of the present day.

Professor Huxley's second paper on "The Evolution of Theology" is even more unsatisfactory than the first. So far as he confines himself to the exposition of the superstitions of the Tonga islanders or the Samoan islanders, he does not throw any light on what he means by evolution. He shows that there was a certain similarity between the practices by which Saul, for instance, endeavoured to discover something hidden from him, and the practices of the Pacific islanders when they attempt divination of the same kind; and that there is a close analogy between David's prayer to have his offense visited exclusively on his own head, and the desire of a Tongan prince to secure the same result. I cannot say that either of these analogies seems to me at all important. The impression that you can discover by a sort of natural magic what you do not know, and desire to know, is not confined to rude peoples. It is implied in the popular usages of almost every people in the world, and I do not [332] believe that it is half so vivid an impression among any class of minds on which revealed religion has taken a strong hold, as it is among those given up to the eager superstitions of the uneducated heart. That Jehovah was consulted by Urim and Thummim, by casting lots, and other Hebrew methods of divination, is quite true; but the question is not whether such modes of discovering the secrets of destiny prevailed among the Hebrews, but whether they did not prevail much less among the Hebrews in consequence of the revelation they had received than they prevailed amongst the Gentile nations to whom there was no such revelation, and who sent near and far to consult oracles in time of danger. Again, that David prayed that the consequence of his supposed disobedience might be visited exclusively upon himself, is no doubt as true as it is true that the Tongan chief did the same; and, indeed, there is hardly a noble-minded ruler, or a true father or mother in existence, who has not prayed to be allowed to bear, on behalf of those for whom the heart has been deeply moved, the penalty which might otherwise be expected to descend on those whom it is desired to shield. But I think it would be easy to show that, natural as this passionate desire to be allowed to suffer vicariously for another is, to the heart of a loyal ruler, or parent, or protector of any kind, revelation has always tempered instead of stimulating, this unchastened eagerness, by enlightening the conscience, and showing those who have any real knowledge of God that his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts. What Professor Huxley utterly fails to do is to show that in any sense whatever the higher ideas of revelation can be traced to the gradual [333] accretions of human superstition. For all we know, the religion of the Tongan islanders has had a longer time in which to evolve itself than the religion of the Jewish Prophets had had in the days of Isaiah. But compare the two results. The one is all magic and intellectual groping; the other was a coherent, severe, and sublime faith.

But, as I understand Professor Huxley, the Prophets did not, in his opinion, continue the line of theological evolution. On the contrary, they did their best to purge away the adventitious sacerdotal and ceremonial elements from the Hebrew religion. They tried to bring Israel back to the worship of a " moral ideal,"–Jehovah being, in Professor Huxley s opinion, a mere moral ideal. In Professor Huxley s view, the Prophets were the reformers, the Puritans of the Hebrew people. Far from developing the dogmas and ceremonies handed down to them, "they are constantly striving to free the moral ideal from the stifling embrace of the current theology and its concomitant ritual." Yet in spite of his two papers on "The Evolution of Theology," I have arrived at no clear impression at all of what Professor Huxley understands by theology; for a more extraordinary statement as to the aim of the Prophets than that they were always engaged in attempting to free their moral ideal from the stifling embrace of the current theology, I never read. As I understand the Prophets, a theological revelation is the alpha and the omega of their power. "Thus saith the Lord" is not only the formula under which they speak, but the key-note of their convictions. It is because they believe, and only because they believe, that they can announce the true will of God, that they hope to be able to elevate the true nature of [334] man. If Professor Huxley should reply that he meant to lay a special emphasis on the adjective "current" which he attached to the word "theology," and that he regards the Prophets as endeavouring to refute the prevalent theology, and to set up a purer theology in its place, I should reply that it was not a theology at all which the Prophets tried to clear away, but a conventional and punctilious faith in religious observances, and that he cannot produce the least trace in Hebrew history of the false theology which he supposes. On the contrary, the ceremonialism and formalism which the Prophets assailed were rooted in the oblivion of theology, in the loss of that very revelation of himself by God of which from the earliest times we have a continuous series of records in the Old Testament. And why, while Professor Huxley dwells so much on ephods, and high priests' bells, and the Witch of Endor's incantation, and the casting of lots, and the offering of sin-offerings, he steadily ignores all the true theology of the Old Testament,–I mean the declarations of God concerning his own will and purposes,–I cannot even imagine. "From one end to the other of the Books of Judges and Samuel," he says, "the only 'commandments of Jahveh' which are specially adduced refer to the prohibition of the worship of other gods, or are orders given ad hoc, and have nothing to do with questions of morality." Undoubtedly the Book of Judges is a story of barbarous times, in which it is often difficult to trace the predominance of any moral spirit, but equally undoubtedly the Book of Samuel begins with the announcement of the severe sentence of God on the immorality of the sons of Eli, and on the weak indulgence shown to them by their father; and how [335] it is possible even for Professor Huxley to ignore the moral revelation running through these books, which, contain, for instance, Samuel's grand protest against the popular unbelief which could not accept God's guidance through the agency of uncrowned kings, but craved the outward show of a regular monarchy; and again, the noble Psalm in which David anticipates the building of a temple for the Ark, and expresses his own deep humility and infinite trust in God; and most of all, the announcement to him by Nathan of the judgment of God upon his sin, in the beautiful parable of the rich man's seizure of the poor man's pet lamb,–is to me quite inexplicably. Nor is the record of the revelation of the Divine nature during the time of these chronicles confined to these books, for all those of the Psalms which belong to this period,–and even the most sceptical critics assign a few of them to this period, – tell us far more of the real progress of revelation than the terse chronicles of those violent times themselves. As it seems to me, from the judgment on the first murderer in Genesis to the times of the Prophets, there is one continuous and steadily increasing testimony to the righteousness and purity of God, which, so far from being in any way inconsistent with the prophetic teachings, is the very heart of them. Indeed, Professor Huxley is inconsistent with himself when, on the one hand, he is so anxious to show that a great part of the Levitical law dates from a far later period than that to which it is referred; and yet, on the other hand, is so eager to attribute to the Prophets an effort to purify the Jewish religion from "the stifling embrace of a ceremonialism which, according to his view, had not at that time been even conceived.

[336] Where Professor Huxley gets his evidence for that worship of ancestors among the Hebrews to which he refers so large a part of all theology, is to me a profound mystery. He referred in his first article to the evidence that the Patriarchs carried about teraphim, and he enlarged greatly on the story of the Witch of Endor. But when he has made the most of these matters, he has done nothing more than show that superstitions common everywhere else were not absolutely excluded by the light of revelation from Hebrew religion. This may be granted. But to grant this is no more to assert that the belief in a righteous God, which is the main subject of the Hebrew revelation, originated in these superficial superstitions, than to grant that the Celts believe in second-sight is to assert that they regard second-sight as the root of their religion. The truth is that Professor Huxley has no consistent conception of what it is that he means by evolution. He seems to think that to trace out a few superficial analogies between the superstitions of savages and the superstitions of the Hebrew people, establishes a high probability that the noblest beliefs of that people originated exactly as the superstitions of savages have originated. I should have supposed that a very different inference was justified by these analogies. The superstitions of the Tongan and Samoan islanders are still, after we know not what period of development, crude, inconsistent, debasing. The faith of the Israelite attained, on Professor Huxley's own showing, in the time of the Prophets, to a noble and sublime type, of which the very essence was not, as Professor Huxley puts it, "to do justice, love mercy, and bear himself humbly before the Infinite," but "to do justice, love mercy, and [337] walk humbly with God,"–God being to the Hebrew in every sense a real person, one in whom he had trusted and did trust, and through his trust in whom, and through that alone, he found it possible to do the justice and love the mercy which had their fountain in the Divine nature. Was this great result due to precisely the same groping of the unassisted human understanding at great problems which, in the case of savage tribes, has issued in results so confused and unmeaning? Or was it due to the direct influence of him whose mighty hand and stretched-out arm had, in the belief of the Hebrews, guided the destiny of the nation? Surely evolution in theology has a far better meaning, a meaning far more closely analogous to its meaning in science, if it be taken to express the gradually unfolding conformity of the inward creed to external realities, than it can ever have if it is only taken to express the shifting mists and vapours in which the nervous affections of man unfold themselves when they recall the ancestors who are lost to their view, and dream of other invisible agencies which may be even more formidable than those of their ancestors themselves. I believe in a real evolution of theology, –an evolution in conformity with the revealing righteousness in which alone theology originates. So far as I understand him, Professor Huxley believes only in the evolution of a dreamland of confused fears and hopes, which it is the true function of the ethical nature to repress, if not to extinguish.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University