Since Pascal's time the necessity of looking beyond the letter of the Word for the means of reconciling its teachings with the revelations of modern science has been extensively recognized by many of the most prominent and influential members of the "Orthodox Church."
"You are to observe," says William Law, in his discourse on The Spirit of Love, "that body begins not from itself; but is all that it is, whether pure or impure; has all that it has, whether of light or darkness, and works all that it works, whether of good or evil, merely from spirit. For nothing, my friend, acts in the whole universe of things but spirit alone. And the state, condition and degree of every spirit is only and solely opened by the state, form, condition and qualities of the body that belongs to it, for the body can have no nature, form, condition or quality, but that which the spirit that brings it forth gives to it." . . .
John Keble, now most widely known as the author of The Christian Year, in No. 89 of Tracts of the Times, the purpose of which was to vindicate the fathers of the Church from the supposed stigma attached to them on account of their alleged mysticism, expressed himself in language which would scarcely have been used by any one not more or less imbued with the views if not the teachings of Swedenborg, in regard to the structural principle of the Word.
"The scriptures deal largely in symbolical language taken from natural objects. The chosen vehicle for the most direct divine communication has always been that form of speech which most readily adopts and invites such imagery, viz., the poetical. Is there not something very striking to a thoughtful, reverential mind, in the simple fact of symbolic language occurring in Scripture at all? That is, when truths Scriptural are represented in Scripture by visible and sensible imagery. Consider what this really comes to. The author of Scripture is the author of Nature. He made His creatures what they are, upholds them in their being, modifies it at His will, knows all their secret relations, associations and properties. We know not how much there may be far beyond metaphor and similitude, in His using the name of any one of His creatures in a translated sense, to shadow out something invisible. But this far we may seem to understand, that the object thus spoken of by Him, is so far taken out of the number of ordinary figures of speech and resources of language, and partakes henceforth of the nature of a type.
"The text, 'The invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made,' lays down a principle of canon of mystical interpretation for the works of nature. It is the characteristic tendency of poetical minds to make the world of sense, from beginning to end, symbolical of the absent and unseen; and poetry was the ordained vehicle of revelation, till God was made manifest in the flesh."
We do not realize how large a proportion of our familiar speech depends for its excellence, by which I mean its intelligibility, upon what we suppose to be the relations and interdependence of nature and thought. When we talk of "borrowing trouble," of the "fluctuations of fortune," the "milk of human kindness," of "a hard head," "the scythe of Time," "an elevated character," "the frosts of age," "rosemary for remembrance," "a sweet face," "refined taste," or when we say of a man that he is "true as steel," "cold as ice," "blind to his true interests," "deaf to reason," that he has "a voice of silver," "a face of brass," etc., we are more or less rudely interpreting the language and lessons of nature.
It is the great weakness of modern science that its students do mostly limit their investigations to phenomena - that is, to facts cognizable by the senses - never allowing themselves to look beyond the phenomena for the Divine purpose of which they are the offspring. Instead of looking up from nature to nature's God, to ascertain the will or motive which must have preceded the phenomena, and inhabits them, they limit their inquiries to the purely phenomenal relations of nature.
The man who did not consider whether the hand extended to him by an acquaintance was intended as a salutation or a blow, would be classed as an idiot; and yet does the modern scientist work upon any higher plane than this idiot? He will allow himself to know and name all the letters on the printed page of nature, and there he stops. He does not attempt to translate and understand the higher lessons that page was intended to teach. Hence it is, perhaps, that the world is so little indebted to the devotees of natural science for ethical or religious truths, the only truths which in the long run are of any value, and the very truths which natural phenomena were specially intended to impart to us. The time must come when no one will be regarded as a philosopher, however familiar he may be with the phenomena of nature, or eminent as an experimentalist, unless he looks beyond physical to spiritual causes, and does what in him lies to put his fingers upon the chords of Divine harmony which connect every thing and event in nature with their Author.
It has been objected by the literalists that the Holy Scriptures, to be a perfect rule of faith, must be so clear in necessary things as to require no interpretation; that it cannot be a rule or measure where it is obscure, and, therefore, deeper and more interior meanings than these primae impressionis would be inconsistent with a perfect rule of faith. If this be so, why was an interval of several centuries allowed to elapse between the appearance of the Old Testament and the New? Why was the Old Testament written in tongues which probably not a single one of the disciples of Christ could understand? Why were all the books of the Bible written down in what for centuries have ceased to be living languages, and most of them by men whose names and connection with the Word have long since passed into oblivion? Upon this theory our Bible could not be a rule of faith to any who do not thoroughly understand the Hebrew, Coptic, Aramaic or Syrian, and Greek tongues, a restriction which has only to be stated to show its absurdity. Why do adults see more in the Word than children; the devout more than the worldly minded; and why does every devout person see new significance in its pages every time he reads them? Nay! Why has our phenomenal world so many mysteries? Why did we have to wait until the Word became ancient literature before we learned that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the reverse; before the waters of the ocean were rendered habitable by the discovery of the compass; before electricity was made the handmaid of civilization? Why does the great book of nature continue to reveal to us secrets no less surprising than any that it has ever previously yielded? Surely we have no more reason for expecting to know all the truths which God has written in His Word at one time or indeed in all time than we have to know at once all the secrets of His mighty works which constitute our earthly environment. . .
There is no more reason why we should comprehend the entire significance of God's Word at sight when uttered in written tongues than when uttered in the language of nature. It seems to be quite reasonable to insist that man should know at once, even at his birth, all of the phenomenal world that the sciences have been gradually disclosing to us or can ever disclose, or that we will ever need to know, as that he should know at sight all of the spiritual world which the Bible purports to teach. As I have already observed, a message from the Infinite God had to be adapted to every possible stage of spiritual development. It is impossible to conceive of His restricting His light to any nation, tribe, class, age or condition of men. Like the light of the natural sun, it dawns gradually, and the day is half spent before it is diffused with meridian affluence.
It necessarily follows that such a communication does not, and cannot, mean the same thing precisely to any two persons, nor can it mean the same thing to any one person at two successive perusals. Its lessons expand or contract like the pupil of the eye in proportion to the amount of light thrown upon them, and the light will always be supplied and increased so far and so fast, and only so far and so fast, as we carry the lessons of the Word into our lives, for it is only thus and then it becomes light to us. We may safely count upon understanding just as much of the spiritual or interior meaning of the Word as we are prepared to make good use of. More light than that is mercifully withheld, lest we profane it and become blinded forever to the sacred truths it was designed to reveal, as we would be blinded by the rays of the sun if their brilliance were not partially obscured by a planetary atmosphere. If our gospel is veiled, said Paul, it is veiled in them that are perishing, in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn upon them. (II Corinthians 4:4.) There is no imaginable limit to the heights and depths of the spiritual truths of the Word, for they are infinite. The more the object-glass of the telescope is enlarged, the more extensive the horizon it sweeps and the greater the number of stellar worlds it reveals; so the more faithfully we carry into our daily life the precepts of the Bible as they appear to us, the more light will be thrown upon it and the more will its interior and spiritual meaning well up from inexhaustible fountains.
I will only add to this confession made many years ago, that I do not yet know of any book or lights outside of Swedenborg and his interpreters which could have solved the difficulties which confronted me in trying to find the proof, in its letter, that the "Word was God"; and my difficulties, I am persuaded, were not unlike, nor less formidable than those which thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, are constantly stumbling over in every Christian land. What an insignificant fraction of the so-called Christian population of the world attend any church, or participate regularly, or at all, in any of the religious exercises prescribed by the Church, except perchance at a funeral or a wedding! How few comparatively have ever read or heard a chapter of the Bible in their lives! Yet nearly every one of this Gentile population that has been invested with the elective franchise, exercises it. He sees an object in voting; he does not see any object in going to church. The bread of life that is there broken to him is neither palatable nor satisfying. What means the rapid spread of rationalism throughout the world in these latter days? Whence the enthusiasm for the evolutionary and revolutionary doctrines of Darwin and Huxley and their disciples? Whence the distinction so frequently made even by the clergy between the Old and the New Testament? Whence the increasing skepticism in regard to the Divinity of Christ? Whence the schisms which are rending some denominations, and the dogmatic fatuities which are employed to buttress others? Is it not because theology has not kept up with the thought and spiritual growth of the world? Is it not because the clergy continue to read and interpret the Bible much as they read and interpret any new book just damp from the press, with only the dullest kind of a suspicion of the depths of wisdom it enfolds? Had not Tennyson but too much authority for saying that in the present condition of the Church,