WHAT HAS THE SCEPTIC TO OFFER?
AS THE EMERSON family waited for the crowd to gather, Mr. Emerson looked frankly worried. Lucile leaned over and lightly passed her hand across her father’s brow.
“Why the deep furrows of thought, Dad? They’ll mar your style of beauty,” she said teasingly.
“I am worried,” he admitted.
“I’m unsettled, entirely at sea. I was certain my favourite objections would be unanswerable. But Mr. Dare has answered most of them, and has presented a number of insuperable arguments for Christianity.”
“Why haven’t you had your sceptical friends help you?” asked George.
“I have put Mr. Dare’s arguments to them, and they are unable to reply. No one here has been able to answer them. And now he is going to come right into our citadel and attack our defences. And I know that we are almost defenceless. Our strength is in attack.”
“Then why not attack?” asked Lucile, eyes alight with hope for a contest.
“Because I have already brought forward my best arguments, and they have been answered.”
“Why, Dad!” exclaimed Lucile and George in open-mouthed astonishment, “what has happened?”
“I don’t know yet,” he smiled.
“I do,” said Mrs. Emerson, also smiling. They turned to her for explanation, but checked their questions when they saw the lecturer mounting the platform.
“It is with reluctance that I approach this subject,” said David Dare. “I do not relish attacking the beliefs of another; I should much rather present the affirmative side of Christianity. But I really see no escape from considering what the unbeliever offers us when he endeavours to destroy Christianity. Since he sets himself up as having something superior to Christianity — or he would not try to destroy it — we must carefully examine what he proposes in its place, and weigh it thoughtfully.”
Mr. Emerson arose, and turning to the audience spoke: “I know we are all pleased with this very courteous attitude of the speaker, and I for one assure him that he need have no hesitation in speaking his mind.”
Hearty applause followed Mr. Emerson’s words.
“Thank you,” smiled the lecturer in recognition of this expression of friendliness. “You all know that Robert Ingersoll, the renowned sceptic, had a brother whom he dearly loved. Standing by the side of his brother’s grave, Robert preached the funeral sermon, uttering in the course of his remarks what has been admired all over the world by his brother sceptics, as the acme of his genius.
“In the face of the majesty of death, in the presence of the unknown, the veil of the sceptic’s mind was torn aside, his suffering soul laid bare, and there were wrung from his blanched lips these famous words that have circled the earth:
“ ‘Whether in mid-sea or among the breakers of the farther shore, a wreck must mark at last the end of each and all. And every life, no matter if its every hour is rich with love and every moment jewelled with joy, will, at its close, become a tragedy, as sad, and deep, and dark as can be woven of the warp and woof of mystery and death. . . . Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry.’
‘To me, sadder words were never uttered. Life, to Ingersoll, after he had plumbed its depths and scaled its heights, was only a cold and barren tragedy, its highest aspirations but a hideous mockery. He faced ‘the blackness of darkness for ever,’ as Jude 13 has it.
“Whatever else scepticism is, it is not and cannot be the truth. It does not even profess to be a truth. It is admittedly only a negation, a putting out of the candles of others without lighting any in their place.
“Let us now turn to another great unbeliever, Herbert Spencer. After having written a score of volumes, in all of which he either attacked or ignored Christianity, he sat down at the close of a long life to write his autobiography in two large volumes. Near the end of the second volume he talks of death, and writes with evident horror of his own end. He goes on to lament the fact that in death ‘there lapses both the consciousness of existence and the consciousness of having existed.’ In other words, one cannot be ‘consciously dead,’ as Lecky puts it in his ‘Map of Life.’
“In fact, Herbert Spencer so yearned for rest for his soul that immediately following his words about death he goes on to say: ‘Thus religious creeds, which in one way or the other occupy the sphere that rational interpretation seeks to occupy and fails, and fails the more it seeks, I have come to regard with a sympathy based on community of need, feeling that dissent from them results from inability to accept the solutions offered, joined with the wish that solutions could be found.’ — ‘Autobiography,’ Volume 2, page 549.
“A number of important conclusions follow:
“First, Spencer knew his own solutions had failed, that they were not solutions. He says so. For fifty years he had used his giant mind in an endeavour to solve the riddles of existence apart from the Bible. At the end of his life he admits how utterly futile have been his efforts.
“Second, the more scepticism tried to occupy the field of religion and account for existence apart from religion, the more it failed.
“Third, he so keenly realized his need of a solution that he abandoned his own and all other sceptical explanations, and sought for solutions in Christianity. Though he did not accept the Christian solution, he admitted it is the best offered.
“Fourth, his own active antagonism changed at last to a sympathy with Christianity before his death, and he actually voiced a wish that he might be a Christian. If his words do not mean all this, then words have no meaning.
“Now why should we discard the Christianity which he regarded with such sympathy and desire, and embrace what he threw away?
“But let us come to the present. In the American Magazine for November, 1930, beginning on page 23, is an article by a noted writer, W. O. Saunders. Let us listen to him:
“ ‘I would have you meet one of the lonesomest and most unhappy individuals on earth. . . . I am talking about the man who doesn’t believe in God. . . . I am not asking you to meet the man who denies there is a God — the atheist; I am asking you to meet that wistful, pathetic, and lonely fellow who simply says he does not know — the agnostic, the man who has no God. Some call him an infidel. . . .
“ ‘I am peculiarly qualified to introduce the agnostic. I am an agnostic myself. Out of my own life, my own heart, and my own mind I write this. In introducing myself, you will have an introduction to the agnostic in your own neighbourhood, for he is everywhere in the land.
“ ‘Probably you will be surprised to know that the agnostic envies you your faith in God, your settled belief in a heaven after death, and your blessed assurance that you will meet with your loved ones in an afterlife in which there will be neither sorrow nor pain. He would give anything to be able to embrace that faith and be comforted by it.
“ ‘For him there is only the grave and the persistence of matter. All he can see beyond the grave is the disintegration of the protoplasm and psychoplasm of which his body and its personality are composed. . . .
“ ‘But in this material view I find no ecstacy nor happiness. Is this the end and all of human life and endeavour? . . . Therefore would I try to convey to your mind and heart something of the wistful and loneliness of the man who does not believe in God.
“ ‘Your agnostic may put on a brave front and face life with heroic smiles. But he is not happy. . . . Standing in awe and reverence before the vastness and majesty of the universe, knowing not whence he came nor why, appalled by the stupendousness of space and the infinitude of time, humiliated by the infinite smallness of himself, cognizent of his frailty, his weakness and brevity, think you not that he, too, sometimes yearns for a staff on which to lean? He, too, carries a cross. . . .
“ ‘Your agnostic . . . is . . . tremendously impressed by the power of your faith. He has seen drunkards and libertines and moral degenerates transfigured by it. He has seen the sick, the aged, and the friendless comforted and sustained by it. And he is impressed by your wonderful charities, your asylums, your hospitals, your nurseries, your schools. . . . He must shamefacedly admit that agnostics, as such, have built few hospitals and few homes for orphans. . . .
“ ‘To him this earth is but a tricky raft upon the unfathomable waters of eternity, with no horizon in sight. His heart aches for every precious life on the raft, drifting, drifting, drifting, whither no one for a certainty knows. . . .
“ ‘You have met one of the lonesomest and most unhappy individuals on earth.’
“What, then, has the infidel to offer? Nothing; nothing at all. He says so. He is wistfully envious of the Christian. He is lonesome and unhappy. Then what has he to offer the Christian? Nothing but his own unhappiness and lonesomeness.”
“But Mr. Dare,” interrupted Mr. Emerson, “the agnostic cannot accept Christianity, because so much has to be taken on faith, contrary to what he sees as natural law. He cannot order his life by faith; he must govern himself according to facts. The reason the agnostic has nothing to offer is that he knows nothing about the afterlife, and to act on faith alone is absurd.”
“On the contrary,” smiled Mr. Dare, “that is exactly what you do, and what every human being does.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mr. Emerson, in a puzzled tone. “I wish you would explain.”
“Gladly. All mankind, educated and ignorant, artists and scientists, idealists and materialists, believe in things they have never seen and cannot prove. Mathematicians believe in axioms; chemists, in atoms, cosmic ether, and contradictory attributes in bodies; astronomers, in the incomprehensible infinity of space; natural scientists, in invisible natural forces and natural laws. For our own peace of mind we lay down the law that bodies have eternally attracted each other and that they will eternally do so; but we know nothing about it and can prove nothing of the kind.
“According to the great scientist, Thomas Huxley, even science is largely a matter of faith. In his book, ‘Evolution and Ethics,’ page 121, he says: ‘If there is anything in the world I do firmly believe in, it is the universal validity of the law of causation; but that universality cannot be proved by any amount of experience.’ And then in his ‘Science and Christian Tradition,’ page 243, he says further: ‘The ground of every one of our actions, and the validity of all our reasonings, rest upon the great act of faith.’
“The knowledge of infidels is only faith resting on dogmas concerning existence, the forces of nature, matter, atoms, mechanics. Everyone, Christian and infidel alike, lives by faith.
“It is amusing to find that the very man who derides miracles believes in the self creation of the world — to hear the man who mocks at the creation of the world by God speak learnedly of unconscious matter producing consciousness, of a primal cell that created itself! He denies the soul of man, but maintains the soul of atoms and believes in the unconscious memory of molecules! He maintains the self-beginning of life, and denies the possibility of Creation!
“The sceptic has nothing but a wail of despair and a sob of loneliness to offer the groping seeker for help. The infidel finds it easier to spend his time criticizing the Bible and Christians than in providing aid for helpless humanity. But the very sceptics who smile at our faith admit that they live by faith. The very sceptics who tell us we are foolish to believe in Christ admit they envy us our belief in Him. The very sceptics who so vigorously advise us to give up our Christianity admit they have nothing whatever to take its place, and would give anything if they could have the comfort and happiness such a belief gives.
“So next week, in out last lecture, we will consider what Christianity has to offer.”