Friday, February 06, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XVII

One of the two important anniversaries this year is that of Charles Darwin, born in 1809. Darwin's book The Origin of Species, although it can be argued that anyone who had written such a book at the time Darwin did would have had the same effect (and someone else almost pipped Darwin to the post), was incredibly influential in Victorian Britain, initial rejection turning quickly to acceptance in practically every circle. It met a society where 'development' was one of the primary categories of thought, and Matheson was a part of that society. In an incredibly short period of time Britain had gone from an agrarian to an industrial society, and so the idea of Development was seen as a law of society.

Today Darwinists like Richard Dawkins argue that religion is merely a product of evolution as if this were some new and shocking theory. In fact it has been around almost since Darwin, and George Matheson had to grapple with it. Evolution, in its Darwinian form, is naturalistic and atheistic. Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary answered the question 'What is Darwinism?' with "it is atheism." The evolutionary hypothesis was modified by others so as to allow for God, and even the Christian God, but still the aspect of darwin that most often met the Victorian was Atheistic, a theory that left man the prisoner of inviolable and purely naturalistic laws. Matheson was not one to ignore important questions, and as he read Darwin and Herbert Spencer a terrible thought came into his mind: What if religion was merely the result of some natural instinct, and all religion just an empty dream?

There have been many and varied responses to the Darwinian theory of evolution in the Church over the years. Some have re-shaped the whole of Chritian theology according to the teaching of Darwin, others have rejected it outright. I myself belong to the latter school. As some Victorians correctly observed, evolution acn only work with what is there. The science of genetics teaches us that acquired characteristics, however advantageous, cannot be passed on, and that natural selection, therefore, cannot produce any new forms, but in fact eliminates some of the old forms! This Darwin did not know, and nor did Matheson.

In the five years that followed his Baird Lecture, Matheson made a study of the theory of evolution, especially in its bearings on religion. In 1883 he published an article in the Scottish Review entitled 'Angnoticism'. This, of course, is that form of atheism that argues that, while we cannot say that God does not exist, we also cannot say that He does. The notorious 'atheist bus' advert displays a strong form of agnosticism, while we cannot certainly know that no God exists, we have no good reason to say that one does. The term was coined by certain Darwinists who, in their zeal for naturalism, rejected all supernaturalism. Matheson profoundly disagreed with them. Evolution, he argued, even if it can be shown to be true (let us recall that this was the era of the 'concessive apologetic' as championed by Alexander Balmain Bruce), does not explain Jesus of Nazareth. Here is a man who cannot be explained by mental or physical evolution. Without using the word, he argues that naturalism is a presupposition, not a result of scientific enquiry. Matheson was not completely orthodox. Like most Victorians, he granted too much to the supposed results of impartial science, but he found at this point in his life that evolution could not explain, much less explain away, Jesus of Nazareth.
This would be a question that would engage Matheson for many more years, and the result would be startling.
God willing, next time we shall deal with Matheson's final period at Innellan.



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