The Heavenly Father - Lectures on Modern Atheism
by Ernest Naville
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Lectures on Modern Atheism.







—"To this deplorable error I desire to oppose faith in GOD as it has been given to the world by the Gospel—faith in the HEAVENLY FATHER." Author's Letter to Professor Faraday (v. p. 193).







These Lectures, in their original form, were delivered at Geneva, and afterwards at Lausanne, before two auditories which together numbered about two thousand five hundred men. A Swiss Review published considerable portions of them, which had been taken down in short-hand, and on reading these portions, several persons, belonging to different countries, conceived the idea of translating the work when completed by the Author, and corrected for publication. Proof-sheets were accordingly sent to the translators as they came from the press: and thus this volume will appear pretty nearly at the same time in several of the languages of Europe.

The hearty kindness with which my fellow-countrymen received my words has been to me both a delight and an encouragement. The expressions of sympathy which have reached me from abroad allow me to hope that these pages, notwithstanding the deficiencies and imperfections of which I am keenly sensible, reflect some few of the rays of the truth which God has deposited on the earth, thereby to unite in the same faith and hope men of every tongue and every nation.


GENEVA, May, 1865.


The appearance of this translation so long after that of the original work is in contradiction to the foregoing statement of the Author, that it would appear at nearly the same time with it. The delay has been due to causes beyond the translator's control—in part to the difficulty of revising the press at so great a distance from the place of publication, the translator being resident at Geneva. This latter circumstance causes an exception in another particular as regards this translation, the proposal to translate the Lectures having been made to the Author, and kindly accepted by him, during the course of their delivery at Geneva.

The mere statement by the Author of the numbers, large as they were, of those who formed the auditories, can give but a small idea of the enthusiasm with which they were received by the crowds which thronged to hear them, and which were composed of all classes of persons, from the most distinguished savant to the intelligent artisan.

It is not to be expected that the Lectures when read, even in the original, and still less in a translation, can produce the vivid impression which they made on those, who, with the translator, had the privilege of hearing them delivered,—the Author having few rivals, on the Continent or elsewhere, in the graces of polished eloquence; but the subjects treated are, it is to be feared, of increasing importance, not abroad only, but in England; and in fact one Lecture, the fourth, is in a large measure occupied with forms of atheism which owe their chief support to English authors. In that Lecture the Author shows that the spiritual origin of man cannot "be put out of sight beneath details of physiology and researches of natural history," and that these not only "cannot settle," but "cannot so much as touch the question."

The same Lecture is occupied in part by a practical refutation of the prejudice against religion drawn from the irreligious character of many men of science. The Author's subject has led him in the present work to confine his illustrations on this head to the question of natural religion: but the translator will avow that a main motive with him to undertake the labor of this translation has been the wish to prove, in the instance of the distinguished Author himself, that men of incontestable eminence as metaphysical philosophers may hold and profess boldly their faith in doctrines, which many who affect to guide the religious opinions of our youth would teach them to despise as the heritage of narrow minds, and to cast away as incompatible with the highest intellectual cultivation. Such doctrines are those of the fall and ruin of man by nature, the necessity for Divine agency in his recovery, his need of propitiation by the sacrifice of the God-Man—l'Homme-Dieu. These truths are explicitly stated by the Author in his former course of lectures—La Vie Eternelle,[1] in which, while discoursing eloquently on that eternal life which is the portion of the righteous, he does not shrink from declaring his belief in its awful counterpart, the eternal condemnation of the wicked.

"The offence of the Cross" has not "ceased," and many finding that these are the opinions of this Author, will perhaps lay down his book as unworthy of their attention: yet the editor, biographer, and expositor of the great French thinker, Maine de Biran, will not need introduction to the intellectual magnates of our own or of any country. The translator will be thankful, if some of those,—the youth more especially,—of his own country, who have been dazzled by the glare of false science, shall find in this work a help to the reassuring of their faith, while they learn in a fresh example that there are men quite competent to deal with the profoundest problems which can exercise our thoughts, who at the same time have come to a conviction,—compatible as they believe with principles of the clearest reason,—of the truth of those very doctrines which form the substance of evangelical Christianity. In saying this, the translator is far from claiming the Author as belonging to the same school of theology with himself: but differing with him on some important points, he has yet believed that this volume is calculated to be of much use in the present condition of religious thought in England, and in this hope and prayer he commends it to the blessing of Him, whose being and attributes, as our God and Father in Jesus Christ, are therein asserted and defended.

GENEVA, November, 1865.


[1] A translation of this work, by an English lady, has been published by Mr. Dalton, 28, Cockspur street.

















(At Geneva, 17th Nov. 1863.—At Lausanne, 11th Jan. 1864.)


Some five-and-twenty or thirty years ago, a German writer published a piece of verse which began in this way: "Our hearts are oppressed with the emotions of a pious sadness, at the thought of the ancient Jehovah who is preparing to die." The verses were a dirge upon the death of the living God; and the author, like a well educated son of the nineteenth century, bestowed a few poetic tears upon the obsequies of the Eternal.

I was young when these strange words met my eyes, and they produced in me a kind of painful bewilderment, which has, I think, for ever engraven them in my memory. Since then, I have had occasion to learn by many tokens that this fact was not at all an exceptional one, but that men of influence, famous schools, important tendencies of the modern mind, are agreed in proclaiming that the time of religion is over, of religion in all its forms, of religion in the largest sense of the word. Beneath the social disturbances of the day, beneath the discussions of science, beneath the anxiety of some and the sadness of others, beneath the ironical and more or less insulting joy of a few, we read at the foundation of many intellectual manifestations of our time these gloomy words: "Henceforth no more God for humanity!" What may well send a shudder of fright through society—more than threatening war, more than possible revolution, more than the plots which may be hatching in the dark against the security of persons or of property—is, the number, the importance, and the extent of the efforts which are making in our days to extinguish in men's souls their faith in the living God.

This fear, Gentlemen, I should wish to communicate to you, but I should wish also to confine it within its just limits. Religion (I take this term in its most general acceptation) is not, as many say that it is, either dead or dying. I want no other proof of this than the pains which so many people are taking to kill it. It is often those who say that it is dead, or falling rapidly into dissolution, who apply themselves to this work. They are too generous, no doubt, to make a violent attack upon a corpse; and it is easy to understand, judging by the intensity of their exertions, that in their own opinion they have something else to do than to give a finishing stroke to the dying.

Present circumstances are serious, not for religion itself, which cannot be imperilled, but for minds which run the risk of losing their balance and their support. Let it be observed, however, that when it is said that we are living in extraordinary times, that we are passing through an unequalled crisis, that the like of what we see was never seen before, and so on, we must always regard conclusions of this nature with distrust. Our personal interest in the circumstances which immediately surround us produces on them for us the magnifying effect of a microscope: and our principal reason for thinking that our epoch is more extraordinary than others, is for the most part that we are living in our own epoch, and have not lived in others. A mind attentive to this fact, and so placed upon its guard against all tendency to exaggeration, will easily perceive that religious thought has in former times passed through shocks as profound and as dangerous as those of which we are witnesses. Still the crisis is a real one. Taking into account its extent in our days, we may say that it is new for the generation to which we belong; and it is worthy of close consideration. To-day, as an introduction to this grave subject, I should wish first to determine as precisely as possible what is our idea of God; to inquire next from what sources we derive it; and lastly to point out, as clearly as I may, the limits and the nature of the discussion to which I invite you.

In asking what sense we must give to the word "God," I am not going to propose to you a metaphysical definition, or any system of my own: I am inquiring what is in fact the idea of God in the bosom of modern society, in the souls which live by this idea, in the hearts of which it constitutes the joy, in the consciences of which it is the support.

When our thoughts rise above nature and humanity to that invisible Being whom we speak of as God, what is it which passes in our souls? They fear, they hope, they pray, they offer thanksgiving. If a man finds himself in one of those desperate positions in which all human help fails, he turns towards Heaven, and says, My God! If we are witnesses of one of those instances of revolting injustice which stir the conscience in its profoundest depths, and which could not on earth meet with adequate punishment, we think within ourselves,—There is a Judge on high! If we are reproved by our own conscience, the voice of that conscience, which disturbs and sometimes torments us, reminds us that though we may be shut out from all human view, there is no less an Eye which sees us, and a just award awaiting us. Thus it is (I am seeking to establish facts) that the thought of God operates, so to speak, in the souls of those who believe in Him. If you look for the meaning common to all these manifestations of man's heart, what do you find? Fear, hope, thanksgiving, prayer. To whom is all this addressed? To a Power intelligent and free, which knows us, and is able to act upon our destinies. This is the idea which is found at the basis of all religions; not only of the religion of the only God, but of the most degraded forms of idolatrous worship. All religion rests upon the sentiment of one or more invisible Powers, superior to nature and to humanity.

When philosophical curiosity is awakened, it disengages from the general sentiment of power the definite idea of the cause which becomes the explanation of the phenomena. The reason of man, by virtue of its very constitution, finds a need of conceiving of an absolute cause which escapes by its eternity the lapse of time, and by its infinite character the bounds of limited existences; a principle, the necessary being of which depends on no other; in a word a unique cause, establishing by its unity the universal harmony. So, when reason meets with the idea of the sole and Almighty Creator, it attaches itself to it as the only thought which accounts to it for the world and for itself.

The Creator is, first of all, He whose glory the heavens declare, while the earth makes known the work of His hands. He is the Mighty One and the Wise, whose will has given being to nature, and who directs at once the chorus of stars in the depths of the heavens, and the drop of vital moisture in the herb which we tread under foot.

If, after having looked around, we turn our regard in upon ourselves, we then discover other heavens, spiritual heavens, in which shine, like stars of the first magnitude, those objects which cause the heart of man to beat, so long as he is not self-degraded: truth, goodness, beauty. Now we feel that we are made for this higher world. Material enjoyments may enchain our will; we may, in the indulgence of unworthy passions, pursue what in its essence is only evil, error, and deformity; but, if all the rays of our true nature are not extinguished, a voice issues from the depth of our souls and protests against our debasement. Our aspirations toward these spiritual excellences are unlimited. Our thought sets out on its course: have we solved one question? immediately new questions arise, which press, no less than the former, for an answer. Our conscience speaks: have we come in a certain degree to realize what is right and good? immediately conscience demands of us still more. Is our feeling for beauty awakened? Well, sirs, when an artist is satisfied with the work of his hands, do you not know at once what to think of him? Do you not know that that man will never do any thing great, who does not see shining in his horizon an ideal which stamps as imperfect all that he has been able to realize? The voice which urges us on through life from the cradle to the grave, and which, without allowing us a moment's pause, is ever crying—Forward! forward! this voice is not more imperious than the noble instinct which, in the view of beauty, of truth, of good, is also saying to us—Forward! forward! and, with the American poet, Excelsior! higher, ever higher! Many of you know that instinct familiar to the climbers of the Alps,[2] as they are called, who, arrived at one summit, have no rest so long as there remains a loftier height in view. Such is our destiny; but the last peak is veiled in shining clouds which conceal it from our sight. Perfection,—this is the point to which our nature aspires; but it is the ladder of Jacob: we see the foot which rests upon the earth; the summit hides itself from our feeble view amidst the splendors of the infinite.

These objects of our highest desires—beauty in its supreme manifestation, absolute holiness, infinite truth—are united in one and the same thought—God! The attributes of the spiritual are never in us but as borrowed attributes; they dwell naturally in Him who is their source. God is the truth, not only because He knows all things, but because He is the very object of our thoughts; because, when we study the universe, we do but spell out some few of the laws which He has imposed on things; because, to know truth is never any thing else than to know the creation or the Creator, the world or its eternal Cause. God it is who must be Himself the satisfaction of that craving of the conscience which urges us towards holiness. If we had arrived at the highest degree of virtue, what should we have done? We should have realized the plan which He has proposed to spiritual creatures in their freedom, at the same time that He is directing the stars in their courses by that other word which they accomplish without having heard it. God is the eternal source of beauty. He it is who has shed grace upon our valleys, and majesty upon our mountains; and He, again, it is (I quote St. Augustine) who acts within the souls of artists, those great artists, who, urged unceasingly towards the regions of the ideal, feel themselves drawn onwards towards a divine world.

God then above all is He who is,—the Absolute, the Infinite, the Eternal,—in the ever mysterious depths of His own essence. In His relation to the world, He is the cause; in His relation to the lofty aspirations of the soul, He is the ideal. He is the ideal, because being the absolute cause, He is the unique source, at the same time that He is the object, of our aspirations: He is the absolute cause, because being He who is, in His supreme unity, nothing could have existence except by the act of His power. We are able already to recognize here, in passing, the source at which are fed the most serious aberrations of religious thought. Are truth, holiness, beauty considered separately from the real and infinite Spirit in which is found their reason for existing? We see thus appear philosophies noble in their commencement, but which soon descend a fatal slope. The divine, so-called, is spoken of still; but the divine is an abstraction, and apart from God has no real existence. If truth, beauty, holiness are not the attributes of an eternal mind, but the simple expression of the tendencies of our soul, man may render at first a sort of worship to these lofty manifestations of his own nature; but logic, inexorable logic, forces him soon to dismiss the divine to the region of chimeras. These rays are extinguished together with their luminous centre; the soul loses the secret of its destinies, and, in the measureless grief which possesses it, it proclaims at length that all is vanity. We shall have, in the sequel, to be witnesses together of this sorrowful spectacle.

Such is the basis of our idea of God: we must now discover its summit. Before the thought of this Sovereign Being, by whose Will are all things, and who is without cause and without beginning, our soul is overwhelmed. We are so feeble! the thought of absolute power crushes us. Creatures of a day, how should we understand the Eternal? Frail as we are, and evil, we tremble at the idea of holiness. But milder accents, as you know, have been heard upon the earth: This Sovereign God—He loves us. In proportion as this idea gains possession of our understanding, in the same proportion our soul has glimpses of the paths of peace. He loves us, and we take courage. He hears us, and prayer rises to Him with the hope of being heard. He governs all, and we confide in His Providence. When your gaze is directed towards the depths of the sky, does it never happen to you to remain in a manner terrified, as you contemplate those worlds which without end are added to other worlds? As you fix your thoughts upon the immeasurable abysses of the firmament,—as you say to yourselves that how far soever you put back the boundary of the skies, if the universe ended there, then the universe, with its suns and its groups of stars, would still be but a solitary lamp, shining as a point in the midst of the limitless darkness,—have you never experienced a sort of mysterious fright and giddiness? At such a time turn your eyes upon nearer objects. He who has made the heavens with their immensity, is He who makes the corn to spring forth for your sustenance, who clothes the fields with the flowers which rejoice your sight, who gives you the fresh breath of morning, and the calm of a lovely evening: it is He, without whose permission nothing occurs, who watches over you and over those you love. Possess yourselves thoroughly with this thought of love, then lift once more your eyes to the sky, and from every star, and from the worlds which are lost in the furthest depths of space, shall fall upon your brow, no longer clouded, a ray of love and of peace. Then with a feeling of sweet affiance you will adopt as your own those words of an ancient prophet: "Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit, or whither shall I flee from Thy Presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me:"[3] then you will understand those grand and sweet words of Saint Augustine, some of the most beautiful that ever fell from the lips of a man: "Are you afraid of God? Run to His arms!"

Thus our idea of God is completed,—the idea of Him whom, in a feeling of filial confidence, we name the Father, and whom we call the Heavenly Father, while we adore that absolute holiness, of which the pure brightness of the firmament is for us the visible and magnificent symbol. Goodness is the secret of the universe; goodness it is which has directed power, and placed wisdom at its service.

My object is not to teach this idea, but to defend it: it is not, I say, to teach it, for we all possess it. There is no one here who has not received his portion of the sacred deposit. This sacred idea may be veiled by our sorrows, perverted by our errors, obscured by our faults; but, however thick be the layer of ashes heaped together in the depth of our souls—look closely: the sacred spark is not extinguished, and a favorable breath may still rekindle the flame.

We have considered the essential elements of which our idea of God is composed. And whence comes this idea? What is its historical origin? I do not ask what is the historical origin of religion, for religion does not take its rise in history; it is met with everywhere and always in humanity. Those who deny this are compelled to "search in the darkness for some obscure example known only to themselves, as if all natural inclinations were destroyed by the corruption of a people, and as if, as soon as there are any monsters, the species were no longer any thing."[4] The consciousness of a world superior to the domain of experience is one of the attributes characteristic of our nature. "If there had ever been, or if there still anywhere existed, a people entirely destitute of religion, it would be in consequence of an exceptional downfall which would be tantamount to a lapse into animality."[5] I am not therefore inquiring after the origin of the idea and sentiment of the Deity, in a general sense, but after the origin of the idea of the only and Almighty Creator as we possess it. In fact, if religion is universal, distinct knowledge of the Creator is not so.

Our own past strikes its roots into the historic soil which, in the matter of creeds, is known by the name of paganism or idolatry. At first sight what do we find in the opinions of that ancient world? No trace of the divine unity. Adoration is dispersed over a thousand different beings. Not only are the heavenly bodies adored and the powers of nature, but men, animals, and inanimate objects. The feeling of the holiness of God is not less wanting, it would seem, than the idea of His unity. Religion serves as a pretext for the unchaining of human passions. This is the case unfortunately with religion in general, and the true religion is no exception to the rule: but what characterizes paganism is that in its case religion, by its own proper nature, favors the development of immorality. Celebrated shrines become the dens of a prostitution which forms part of the homage rendered to the gods; the religious rites of ancient Asia, and those of Greece which fell under their influence, are notorious for their lewdness. The temples of false deities, too often defiled by debauchery, are too often also dishonored by frightful sacrifices. The ancient civilization of Mexico was elegant and even refined in some respects; but the altars were stained, every year, with the blood of thousands of human beings; and the votaries of this sanguinary worship devoured, in solemn banquets, the quivering limbs of the victims. Let us not look for examples too far removed from the civilization which has produced our own. In the Greek and Roman world, the stories of the gods were not very edifying, as every one knows: the worship of Bacchus gave no encouragement to temperance, and the festivals of Venus were not a school of chastity. It would be easy, by bringing together facts of this sort, to form a picture full of sombre coloring, and to conclude that our idea of God, the idea of the only and holy God, does not proceed from the impure sources of idolatry. The proceeding would be brief and convenient; but such an estimation of the facts, false because incomplete, would destroy the value of the conclusion. In pagan antiquity, in fact, the abominations of which I have just reminded you did not by themselves make up religious tradition. Side by side with a current of darkness and impurity, we meet with a current of pure ideas and of strong gleams of the day.

Almost all the pagans seem to have had a glimpse of the Divine unity over the multiplicity of their idols, and of the rays of the Divine holiness across the saturnalia of their Olympi. It was a Greek who wrote these words: "Nothing is accomplished on the earth without Thee, O God, save the deeds which the wicked perpetrate in their folly."[6] It was in a theatre at Athens that the chorus of a tragedy sang, more than two thousand years ago: "May destiny aid me to preserve unsullied the purity of my words and of all my actions, according to those sublime laws which, brought forth in the celestial heights, have Heaven alone for their father, to which the race of mortal men did not give birth, and which oblivion shall never entomb. In them is a supreme God, and one who waxes not old."[7] It would be easy to multiply quotations of this order, and to show you in the documents of Grecian and Roman civilization numerous traces of the knowledge of the only and holy God. Listen now to a voice which has come forth actually from the recesses of the sepulchre: it reaches us from ancient Egypt.

In Egypt, as you know, the degradation of the religious idea was in popular practice complete. But, under the confused accents of superstition, the science of our age is succeeding in catching from afar the vibrations of a sublime utterance. In the coffins of a large number of mummies have been discovered rolls of papyrus containing a sacred text which is called the Book of the Dead. Here is the translation of some fragments which appear to date from a very remote epoch. It is God who speaks: "I am the Most Holy, the Creator of all that replenishes the earth, and of the earth itself, the habitation of mortals. I am the Prince of the infinite ages. I am the great and mighty God, the Most High, shining in the midst of the careering stars and of the armies which praise me above thy head.... It is I who chastise and who judge the evil-doers, and the persecutors of godly men. I discover and confound the liars.... I am the all-seeing Judge and Avenger ... the guardian of my laws in the land of righteousness."[8]

These words are found mingled, in the text from which I extract them, with allusions to inferior deities; and it must be acknowledged that the translation of the ancient documents of Egypt is still uncertain enough. Still this uncertainty does not appear to extend to the general sense and bearing of the recent discoveries of our savants. Myself a simple learner from the masters of the science, I can only point out to you the result of their studies. Now, this is what the masters tell us as to the actual state of mythological studies. Traces are found almost everywhere, in the midst of idolatrous superstitions, of a religion comparatively pure, and often stamped with a lofty morality. Paganism is not a simple fact: it offers to view in the same bed two currents, the one pure and the other impure. What is the relation between these two currents? A passage in a writer of the Latin Church throws a vivid light upon their actual relation in practical life. It is thus that Lactantius expresses himself: "When man (the pagan) finds himself in adversity, then it is that he has recourse to God (to the only God). If the horrors of war threaten him, if there appear a contagious disease, a drought, a tempest, then he has recourse to God.... If he is overtaken by a storm at sea, and is in danger of perishing, immediately he calls upon God; if he finds himself in any urgent peril, he has recourse to God.... Thus men bethink themselves of God when they are in trouble; but as soon as the danger is past, and they are no longer in any fear, we see them return with joy to the temples of the false gods, make to them libations, and offer sacrifices to them."[9] This is a striking picture of the workings of man's heart in all ages; for, as our author observes, "God is never so much forgotten of men as when they are quietly enjoying the favors and blessings which He sends them."[10] As regards our special object, this page reveals in a very instructive manner the religious condition of heathen antiquity. The thought of the sovereign God was stifled without being extinguished; it awoke beneath the pressure of anguish; but ordinary life, the life of every day, belonged to the easy worship of idols.

It may now be asked what is the historical relation between the two currents of paganism of which we have just established the actual relation in practical life. Did humanity begin with a coarse fetichism, and thence rise by slow degrees to higher conceptions? Do the traces of a comparatively pure monotheism first show themselves in the most recent periods of idolatry? Contemporary science inclines more and more to answer in the negative. It is in the most ancient historical ground (allow me these geological terms) that the laborious investigators of the past meet with the most elevated ideas of religion. Cut to the ground a young and vigorous beech-tree, and come back a few years afterwards: in place of the tree cut down you will find coppice-wood; the sap which nourished a single trunk has been divided amongst a multitude of shoots. This comparison expresses well enough the opinion which tends to prevail amongst our savants on the subject of the historical development of religions. The idea of the only God is at the root,—it is primitive; polytheism is derivative. A forgotten, and as it were slumbering, monotheism exists beneath the worship of idols; it is the concealed trunk which supports them, but the idols have absorbed all the sap. The ancient God (allow me once more a comparison) is like a sovereign confined in the interior of his palace: he is but seldom thought of, and only on great occasions; his ministers alone act, entertain requests, and receive the real homage.

The proposition of the historical priority of monotheism is very important, and is not universally admitted. It will therefore be necessary to show you, by a few quotations at least, that I am not speaking rashly. One of the most accredited mythologists of our time, Professor Grimm, of Berlin, writes as follows: "The monotheistic form appears to be the more ancient, and that out of which antiquity in its infancy formed polytheism.... All mythologies lead us to this conclusion."[11] Among the French savants devoted to the study of ancient Egypt, the Vicomte de Ronge stands in the foremost rank. This is what he tells us: "In Egypt the supreme God was called the one God, living indeed, He who made all that exists, who created other beings. He is the Generator existing alone who made the heaven and created the earth." The writer informs us that these ideas are often found reproduced "in writings the date of which is anterior to Moses, and many of which formed part of the most ancient sacred hymns;" then he comes to this conclusion: "Egypt, in possession of an admirable fund of doctrines respecting the essence of God, and the immortality of the soul, did not for all that defile herself the less by the most degrading superstitions; we have in her, sufficiently summed up, the religious history of all antiquity."[12] As regards the civilization which flourished in India, M. Adolphe Pictet, in his learned researches on the subject of the primitive Aryas, arrives, in what concerns the religious idea, at the following conclusion: "To sum up: primitive monotheism of a character more or less vague, passing gradually into a polytheism still simple, such appears to have been the religion of the ancient Aryas."[13] One of our fellow-countrymen, who cultivates with equal modesty and perseverance the study of religious antiquities, has procured the greater part of the recent works published on these subjects in France, Germany, and England. He has read them, pen in hand, and, at my urgent request, he has kindly allowed me to look over his notes which have been long accumulating. I find the following sentence in the manuscripts which he has shown me: "The general impression of all the most distinguished mythologists of the present day is, that monotheism is at the foundation of all pagan mythology."

The savants, I repeat, do not unanimously accept these conclusions: savants, like other men, are rarely unanimous. It is enough for my purpose to have shown that it is not merely the grand tradition guaranteed by the Christian faith, but also the most distinctly marked current of contemporary science, which tells us that God shone upon the cradle of our species. The august Form was veiled, and idolatry with its train of shameful rites shows itself in history as the result of a fall which calls for a restoration, rather than as the point of departure of a continued progress.

The august Form was veiled. Who has lifted the veil? Not the priests of the idols. We meet in the history of paganism with movements of reformation, or, at the very least, of religious transformation: Buddhism is a memorable example of this; but it is not a return towards the pure traditions of India or of Egypt which has caused us to know the God whom we adore. Has the veil been lifted by reflection, that is to say by the labors of philosophers? Philosophy has rendered splendid services to the world. It has combated the abominations of idolatry; it has recognized in nature the proofs of an intelligent design; it has discerned in the reason the deeply felt need of unity; it has indicated in the conscience the sense of good, and shown its characteristics; it has contemplated the radiant image of the supreme beauty—still it is not philosophy which has restored for humanity the idea of God. Its lights mingled with darkness remained widely scattered, and without any focus powerful enough to give them strength for enlightening the world. To seek God, and consequently to know Him already in a certain measure; but to remain always before the altar of a God glimpsed only by an elite of sages, and continuing for the multitudes the unknown God: such was the wisdom of the ancients. It prepared the soil; but it did not deposit in it the germ from which the idea of the Creator was to spring forth living and strong, to overshadow with its branches all the nations of the earth. And when this idea appeared in all its splendor, and began the conquest of the universe, the ancient philosophy, which had separated itself from heathen forms of worship, and had covered them with its contempt, contracted an alliance with its old adversaries. It accepted the wildest interpretations of the common superstitions, in order to be able to league itself with the crowd in one and the same conflict with the new power which had just appeared in the world. And this sums up in brief compass the whole history of philosophy in the first period of our era.

The monotheism of the moderns does not proceed historically from paganism; it was prepared by the ancient philosophy, without being produced by it. Whence comes it then? On this head there exists no serious difference of opinion. Our knowledge of God is the result of a traditional idea, handed down from generation to generation in a well-defined current of history. Much obscurity still rests upon man's earliest religious history, but the truth which I am pointing out to you is solidly and clearly established. Pass, in thought, over the terrestrial globe. All the superstitions of which history preserves the remembrance are practised at this day, either in Asia or in Africa, or in the isles of the Ocean. The most ridiculous and ferocious rites are practised still in the light of the same sun which gilds, as he sets, the spires and domes of our churches. At this very day, there are nations upon the earth which prostrate themselves before animals, or which adore sacred trees. At this very day, perhaps at this hour in which I am addressing you, human victims are bound by the priests of idols; before you have left this room, their blood will have defiled the altars of false deities. At this very day, numerous nations, which have neither wanted time for self-development, nor any of the resources of civilization, nor clever poets, nor profound philosophers, belong to the religion of the Brahmins, or are instructed in the legends which serve as a mask to the pernicious doctrines of Buddha. Where do we meet with the clear idea of the Creator? In a unique tradition which proceeds from the Jews, which Christians have diffused, and which Mahomet corrupted. God is known, with that solid and general knowledge which founds a settled doctrine and a form of worship, under the influence of this tradition and nowhere else. We assert this as a simple fact of contemporary history; and there is scarcely any fact in history better established.

The light comes to us from the Gospel. This light did not appear as a sudden and absolutely new illumination. It had cast pale gleams on the soul of the heathen in their search after the unknown God; it had shone apart upon that strange and glorious people which bears the name of Israel. Israel had preserved the primitive light encompassed by temporary safe-guards. It was the flame of a lamp, too feeble to live in the open air, and which remained shut up in a vase, until the moment when it should have become strong enough to shine forth from its shattered envelope upon the world. The worship of Jehovah is a local worship; but this worship, localized for a time, is addressed to the only and sovereign God. To every nation which says to Israel as Athaliah to Joash:

I have my God to serve—serve thou thine own,[14]

Israel replies with Joash:

Nay, Madam, but my God is God alone; Him must thou fear: thy God is nought—a dream![15]

Israel does not affirm merely that the God of Israel is the only true God, but affirms moreover that the time will come when all the earth will acknowledge Him for the only and universal Lord. A grand thought, a grand hope, is in the soul of this people, and assures it that all nations shall one day look to Jerusalem. Its prophets threaten, warn, denounce chastisements, predict terrible catastrophes; but in the midst of their severer utterances breaks forth ever and again the song of future triumph:

Uplift, Jerusalem, thy queenly brow: Light of the nations, and their glory, thou![16]

Thus is preserved in the ancient world the knowledge of God amongst an exceptional people, amidst the darkness of idolatry and the glimmerings of an imperfect wisdom. And not only is it preserved, but it shines with a brightness more and more vivid and pure. The conception of sovereignty which constitutes its foundation, is crowned as it advances by the conception of love. At length He appears by whom the universal Father was to be known of all.

Have you not remarked the surprising simplicity with which Jesus speaks of His work? He speaks of the universe and of the future as a lawful proprietor speaks of his property. The field in which the Word shall be sown is the world. He introduces that worship in spirit and in truth before which all barriers shall fall. He knows that humanity belongs to Him; and when He foretells His peaceful conquest, one knows not which predominates in His words, simplicity or grandeur. Now this predicted work has been done, is being done, and will be done. No one entertains any serious doubt of this. The idea of God, as it exists amongst Christian peoples, bears on its brow the certain sign of victory.

In many respects, we are passing through the world in times which are not extraordinary, and among things little worthy of lasting record. Still great events are being accomplished before our eyes. The ancient East is shaken to its foundations. The work of foreign missions is taken up again with fresh energy. Ships, as they leave the shores of Europe, carry with them,—together with those who travel for purposes of commerce, or from curiosity, or as soldiers,—those new crusaders who exclaim: God wills it! and are ready to march to their death in order to proclaim the God of life to nations plunged in darkness. The advances of industry, the developments of commerce, the calculations of ambition, all conspire to diffuse spiritual light over the globe. These are noble spectacles, revealing clearly the traces of a superior design, which the mighty of this world are accomplishing, even by the craft and violence of their policy: they are the manifest instruments of a Will to which oftentimes they are insensible. The knowledge of God is extending; and while it is extending, it is enriching itself with its own conquests. Just as it absorbed the living sap of the doctrines of the Greeks, so it is strengthening itself with the doctrines of the ancient East and of old Egypt, which an indefatigable science is bringing again to light. Christian thought is growing, not by receiving any foreign impulse from without, but like a vigorous tree, whose roots traverse new layers of a fertile soil. All truth comes naturally to the centre of truth as to its rallying-point; and to the universal prayer must be gathered all the pure accents gone astray in the superstitious invocations which rise from the banks of the Ganges or from the burning regions of Africa. The day will come, when our planet, in its revolutions about the sun, shall receive on no point of its surface the rays of the orb of day, without sending back, over the ruins of idol-temples for ever overthrown, a song of thanksgiving to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, become through Jesus Christ the God of all mankind.

We know now whence comes our idea of God: it is Christian in its origin. It proceeds from this source, not only for those who call themselves Christians, but for all those who, in the bosom of modern society, believe sincerely and seriously in God. But little study and reflection is required for the acknowledgment that the doctrines of our deists are the product of a reason which has been evangelized without their own knowledge. They have not invented, but have received the thought, which constitutes the support of their life. A mind of ordinary cultivation is free henceforward from all danger of falling into the artless error of J.J. Rousseau, when he pretended that even though he had been born in a desert island and had never known a human being, he would have been able to draw up the confession of faith of the Vicaire Savoyard. The habit of historical research has dispelled these illusions. A French writer, distinguished for solid erudition, wrote not long ago: "The civilized world has received from Judea the foundations of its faith. It has learned of it these two things which pagan antiquity never knew—holiness and charity; for all holiness is derived from belief in a personal, spiritual God, Creator of the universe; and all charity from the doctrine of human brotherhood!"[17] Religion, in its most general sense, is found wherever there are men; but distinct knowledge of the Heavenly Father is the fruit of that word which comes to us from the borders of the Jordan,—a word in which all the true elements of ancient wisdom are found to have mutually drawn together, and strengthened each other. In the very heart of our civilization, those men of mind who succeed in freeing themselves in good earnest from the influence of this word come, oftener than not, to throw off all belief in the real and true God, if they have strength of mind enough properly to understand themselves.

How is it that the full idea of the Creator,—an idea which true philosophers have sought after in all periods of history, and of which they have had, so to speak, glimpses and presentiments,—how is it that this idea is a living one only under the influence of the tradition which, proceeding originally from Abraham and Moses, has been continued by Jesus Christ? It is not impossible to point out the spiritual causes of this great historical phenomenon. Faith in God, in order to maintain itself in presence of the difficulties which rise in our minds, and—to come at once to the core of the question—the idea of the love of God, in order to maintain itself in presence of evil and of the power of evil on the earth, has need of resources which the Christian belief alone possesses. The knowledge of the Heavenly Father is essentially connected with the Gospel: this is the historical fact. This fact is accounted for by the existence of an organic bond between all the great Christian doctrines: this is my deliberate conviction. I frankly declare here my own opinions: to do so is for me a matter almost of honor and good faith; but I declare them, without desiring to lay any stress upon them in these lectures. My present object is to consider the idea of God by itself. I isolate it for my own purposes from Christian truth taken as a whole, but without making the separation in my thoughts. The thesis which I propose to maintain is common to all Christians, that is quite clear; but further; in a perfectly general sense, and in a merely abstract point of view, it is a proposition maintained equally by the disciples of Mahomet; it is maintained by J.J. Rousseau and the spiritualist philosophers who reproduce his thoughts. It is clear in fact that just as Jesus Christ is the corner-stone of all Christian doctrine, so God is the foundation common to all religions.

Before concluding this lecture I desire to answer a question which may have suggested itself to some amongst you. What are we about when we take up a Christian idea in order to defend it by reasoning? Are we occupied about religion or philosophy? Are we treading upon the ground of faith, or on the ground of reason? Are we in the domain of tradition, or in that of free inquiry? I have no great love, Gentlemen, for hedges and enclosures. I know very well, better, perhaps, than many amongst you, because I have longer reflected on the subject, what are the differences which separate studies specially religious, from philosophical inquiries. But when the question relates to God, to the universal cause, we find ourselves at the common root of religion and philosophy, and distinctions, which exist elsewhere, disappear. Besides, these distinctions are never so absolute as they are thought to be. You will understand this if you pay attention to these two considerations: there is no such thing as pure thought disengaged from every traditional element: there is no such thing as tradition received in a manner purely passive, and disengaged from all exercise of the reflective faculties.

You think you are employed about philosophy when you shut yourself up in your own individual thoughts. A mistake! The most powerful genius of modern times failed in this enterprise. Descartes conceived the project of forgetting all that he had known, and of producing a system of doctrine which should come forth from his brain as Minerva sprang all armed from the brain of Jupiter. Now-a-days a mere schoolboy, if he has been well taught, ought to be able to prove that Descartes was mistaken, because the current of tradition entered his mind together with the words of the language. It is not so easy as we may suppose to break the ties by which God has bound us all together in mutual dependence. Man speaks, he only thinks by means of speech, and speech is a river which takes its rise in the very beginnings of history, and brings down to the existing generation the tribute of all the waters of the past. No one can isolate himself from the current, and place himself outside the intellectual society of his fellows. We have more light than we had on this subject, and the attempt of Descartes, which was of old the happy audacity of genius, could in our days be nothing but the foolish presumption of ignorance.

As for the purely passive reception of tradition, this may be conceived when only unimportant legends are in question, or doctrines which occupy the mind only as matters of curiosity; but when life is at stake, and the interests of our whole existence, the mind labors upon the ideas which it receives. Religion is only living in any soul when all the faculties have come into exercise; and faith, by its own proper nature, seeks to understand. The distinction between traditional data therefore and pure philosophy is far from being so real or so extensive as it is commonly thought to be. But for lack of time, I might undertake to prove to you more at length that the labor of individual thought upon the common tradition is the absolute and permanent law of development for the human mind.

We have to steer between two extreme and contrary pretensions. What shall we say to those theologians who deny all power to man's reason, and consider the understanding as a receiver which does nothing but receive the liquid which is poured into it? to those theologians who, not content with despising Aristotle and Plato, think themselves obliged to vilify Socrates and calumniate Regulus? We will tell them that they depart from the grand Christian tradition, of which they believe themselves par excellence the representatives. We will add that they outrage their Master by seeming to believe that in order to exalt Him it is necessary to calumniate humanity. Again, what shall we say to those philosophers, who do not wish for truth except when they have succeeded in educing it by themselves? to those philosophers who draw a little circle about their own personal thought, and say: If truth discovers itself outside this circle we have no wish to see it; and who boast that they only are free, because they have abandoned the common beliefs? We will tell them that they are deceiving themselves by taking for their own personal thought the debris of the tradition of the human race. We will add that their pretended independence is a veritable slavery. A strange sort of liberty that, which should forbid those who affect it to accept a faith which appeared to them to be true, because they were not the inventors of it. Listen to this wise reflection of a contemporary writer: "Philosophy allows us to range ourselves on the side of Platonism: why should it not also allow us to range ourselves on the side of the Christian faith, if there it is that we find wisdom and immutable truth? The choice ought to seem as free and as worthy of respect on the one side as on the other; and philosophy which claims liberty for itself, is least of all warranted in refusing it to others."[18] To be free, is to look for truth wherever it may be found, and it is to obey truth wherever we meet with it. When the question therefore relates to God, or to the soul and its eternal destinies,—to the man who asks me, Are you occupied with religion or philosophy? I have only one answer to give: I am a man, and I am seeking truth.

A final consideration will perhaps put these thoughts in a more striking light. If you think the most important of the discussions of our day to be that between natural and revealed religion, between deism and the Gospel, you have not well discerned the signs of the times. The fundamental discussion is now between men who believe in God, in the soul, and in truth, and men, who, denying truth, deny at the same time the soul and God. When these high problems are in question, periodicals and other publications, which have the widest circulation, and which gain admission into every household, bring us too often the works of writers without convictions, eager to spread amongst others the doubt which has devoured their own beliefs. They have received entire, and without losing an obole of it, the heritage of the Greek Sophists. They involve in fact in the same proscription Socrates and Jesus Christ, Paul of Tarsus and Plato of Athens: they have no more respect for the opinions of Descartes and Leibnitz than for those of Pascal and Bossuet. The great question of the day is to know whether our desire of truth is a chimaera; whether our effort to reach the divine world is a spring into the empty void. When the question relates to God, inasmuch as He is the basis of reason no less than the object of faith, all the barriers which exist elsewhere disappear: to defend faith is to defend reason; to defend reason is to defend faith. The unbridled audacity of those who deny fundamental truths is bringing ancient adversaries, for a moment at least, to fight beneath the same flag. What they would rob us of, is not merely this or that article of a definite creed, but all faith whatever in Divine Providence, every hope which goes beyond the tomb, every look directed towards a world superior to our present destinies. But take courage. This flame lighted on the earth, and which is evermore directed towards heaven, has passed safely through rougher storms than those which now threaten it; it has shone brightly in thicker darkness than that in which men are laboring so hard to enshroud it. It is not going to be extinguished, be very sure, before the affected indifference of a few wits of our day, and the haughty disdain of a few contemporary journalists.

In a word, Gentlemen,—to take the idea of God as it has been handed down to us, and to study its relation to the reason, the heart, and the conscience of man,—this is my proposed method of proceeding. To show you that this idea is truth, because it satisfies the conscience, the heart, and the reason—this is the object I have in view. Of this object I am sure you feel the importance: nevertheless, and that we may be more alive to it still, I propose to you to sound with me the abysses of sorrow and darkness which are involved in those terrible words—"without God in the world."


[2] Aux grimpeurs des Alpes.

[3] Psalm cxxxix. 7-10.

[4] J.J. Rousseau.

[5] Les Origines Indo-Europeennes, by Adolphe Pictet, ii. 651.

[6] Cleanthes, Hymn to Jupiter.

[7] Sophocles, OEdipus R.

[8] Handbuch der gesammten aegyptischen Alterthumskunde, von Dr. Max Uhlemann. Leipzig, 1857.

[9] Institutions divines, ii. 1.

[10] Id.

[11] Deutsche Mythol. Third edition, page lxiv.

[12] Annales de philosophie chretienne, t. 59, p. 228.r.

[13] Les Origines Indo-Europeennes, ii. 720.

[14] J'ai mon Dieu que je sers, vous servirez le votre.


Il faut craindre le mien; Lui seul est Dieu, Madame, et le votre n'est rien.


Leve, Jerusalem, leve ta tete altiere! Les peuples a l'envi marchent a ta lumiere.

[17] Etudes Orientales, par Adolphe Franck, p. 427.

[18] Barthelemy St. Hilaire, in the Seances et travaux de l'Academie des sciences morales et politiques, LXX., p. 134.



(At Geneva, 20th Nov. 1863.—At Lausanne, 13th Jan. 1864.)


I propose to examine to-day what are the consequences for human life of the total suppression of the idea of God. This suppression is the result of atheism properly so called: it is also the result of scepticism raised into a system. The soul which doubts, but which seeks, regrets, hopes, is not wholly separated from God. It gives Him a large share in its life, inasmuch as the desire which it feels to meet with Him, and the sadness which it experiences at not contemplating Him in a full light, become the principal facts of its existence. But doubt adopted as a doctrine realizes in its own way, equally with atheism properly so called, life without God, the mournful subject of our present study.

Having God, the spiritual life has a firm base and an invincible hope. The vapors of earth may indeed for a moment obscure the sky. One while fogs hang about the ground; another while clouds send forth the thunder-bolt; but, above the regions of darkness and of tempest, the eye of faith contemplates the eternal azure in its unchanging calm. Life has its sorrows for all; but it is not only endurable, it is blessed, when in view of the instability of all things, in view of evil, of injustice, and of suffering, there can breathe from the depths of the soul to the eternal, the Holy One, the Comforter, those words of patience in life and of joy in death: My God! Take God away, and life is decapitated. Even this comparison is not sufficient; life, rather, becomes like to a man who should have lost at once both his head and his heart. The immense subject which opens before us falls into an easy and natural division: we will fix our attention successively upon the individual and upon society.



Man thinks, he feels, and he wills: these are the three great functions of the spiritual life. Let us inquire what, without God, would become, first, of thought, which is the instrument of all knowledge; next; of the conscience, which is the law of the will; then of the heart, which is the organ of the feelings. We will begin with thought.

Let us go back to the origin of modern philosophy. The labors of Descartes will make us acquainted, under the form clearest for us, with a current of lofty thoughts which does honor to ancient civilization, and which has come down to us through the writings of Plato and St. Augustine. We have seen that Descartes deceived himself, when he thought to separate himself altogether from tradition, and forgot the while how intimately men's minds are bound together in a common possession of truth. He was mistaken, because he confounded the idea, natural to the human mind, of an infinite reason, with the full idea of the Creator; so attributing to the efforts of his own philosophy that gift of truth which he had received from the Christian tradition. But, having so far recognized his error, listen now to this great man, and judge if he were again mistaken in those thoughts of his which I am about to reproduce to you.

Descartes strives hard to doubt of all things, persuaded that truth will resist his efforts, and come forth triumphant from the trial. He doubts of what he has heard in the schools: his masters may have led him into error. He doubts of the evidence of his senses: his senses deceive him in the visions of the night; what if he were always dreaming, and if his waking hours were but another sleep with other dreams! He will doubt even of the certainty of reason: what if the reason were a warped and broken instrument? Reason is only worth what its cause may be worth. If man is the child of chance, his thoughts may be vain. If man is the creature of a wicked and cunning being, the light of reason may be only an ignis fatuus kindled by a malicious and mocking spirit. Here is a soul plunged in the lowest abysses of doubt; but it is a manly soul which seeks in doubt a trial for truth, and not a comfortable pillow on which slothfully to repose. How does Descartes upraise himself? By a thought known to every one, and which was already found in St. Augustine: "Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am." Deceive me who will; if I am deceived, I exist. Here is a certainty protected from all assault: I am. But what a poor certainty is this! What does it avail me to have rescued my existence from the abysses of universal doubt, if above the deep waters which have swallowed up all belief floats only this naked and mortifying truth: I am; but I exist only perhaps to be the sport of errors without end. The first step therefore taken by the philosopher would be a fruitless one if it were not followed by a second. An eye is open, and says: I see; but it must have a warrant that the light by which it sees is not a fantastic brightness. No, replies Descartes; reason sees a true light; and this is how he proves it: I am, I know myself; that is certain. I know myself as a limited and imperfect being; that again is certain. I conceive then infinity and perfection; that is not less certain; for I should not have the idea of a limit if I did not conceive of infinity, and the word imperfect would have no meaning for me, if I could not imagine perfection, of which imperfection is but the negation. Starting from this point, the philosopher proves by a series of reasonings that the conception of perfection by our minds demonstrates the real existence of that perfection: God is. He adds, that the existence of God is more certain than the most certain of all the theorems of geometry. You will observe, Gentlemen, that the man who speaks in this way is one of the greatest geometricians that ever lived. He has found God, he has found the light. Reason does not deceive, when it is faithful to its own laws: the senses do not deceive, when they are exercised according to the rules of the understanding. Error is a malady; it is not the radical condition of our nature; it is not without limits and without remedy, for the final cause of our being is God, that is to say truth and goodness.

From everlasting God was true, For ever good and just will be,

says one of our old psalms. Faith in the veracity of God—such is the ground of the assurance of believers; such is also the foundation on which has been raised the greatest of modern philosophies. Without the knowledge of God and faith in his goodness, man remains plunged in irremediable doubt, possessing only this single, poor, and frightful certainty: I am; and I exist perhaps only to be eternally deceived.

But, it has been said, and it needed no great cleverness to say it—What a strange way is this of reasoning! Here is a man who first proves that God is, by means of his reason; and then proves that his reason is good because God is. His reason demonstrates God to him, and God demonstrates his reason to him: it is an argument of which any schoolboy can at once see the fallacy; it is manifestly a vicious circle. This has been said again and again by persons who have neglected a sufficiently simple consideration. The error is apparently a gross one; is it not likely that the argument has been misunderstood? Ought we not to look very closely at it, before declaring that one of the most lucid minds that have ever appeared in the world left at the basis of his doctrine a fault of logic which any schoolboy can discover? Self-sufficient levity of spirit is not the best means of penetrating the thought of leading minds; and it very often happens to us to fail of understanding because we have failed in respect.

Let us examine with serious attention, not the very words of Descartes, as an historian might do, but the course of thought of which Descartes is one of the most illustrious representatives.

To recognize in the reason traces of God, and to show that in faith in God consists the only warrant of the reason, is not to argue in a vicious circle, because, in this way of proceeding, what we are employed in is not reasoning, but analysis; we are establishing a fact in order to ascertain what that fact implies and supposes. This fact is the natural faith which man has in his own reason, when his reason reveals to him the immediate light of evidence, or the mediate light of certainty. Now, when man confides in his reason, it is not in his individual reason that he confides, for he has no doubt that what is evident for him is so also for others. If, tossed by a tempest, he were thrown upon an island of savages, he would not think that those savages, when they came to reflect, would be able to discover that the axioms of our geometry are false, or to make elements of logic which would contradict our own. We believe in a general reason, everywhere and always the same, and in which the reason of each individual participates. We believe therefore that there is a principle of truth which exists in itself, a reason which is eternal and everywhere present; in other words, we believe in God considered as the source of the universal intelligence. To believe in one's reason, is to believe in God, in this sense: the fact of the confidence which we place in our own faculty of thought, supposes a concealed faith in eternal truth. This is the analysis of which I was speaking. It is a circle if you please, but it is a circle of light, outside of which there is, as we shall see by and by, nothing but darkness and hard contradictions.

You deny the existence of God. On what ground do you rest this denial? On the ground of your reason. You believe then that your reason is good, you believe it very good, since you do not hesitate to trust it, while you undertake to prove false the fundamental instincts of human nature. But you would not venture to say that this reason which you believe in with a faith so firm is your own separate reason merely, your personal and exclusive property. You believe in the universal reason; you believe in God, considered at least as the source of the understanding. The man therefore who denies God, affirms Him in a certain sense at the same time that he denies Him. He denies Him in his words, in the external form of his thought; he affirms Him in reality, as the Supreme Intelligence, by the very trust which he places in his own thought. Our understanding is only the reflected ray of the Divine verity. Therefore it is that Descartes, as soon as he has laid the first foundations of his system, interrupts the chain of his reasonings to trace these lines: "Here I think it highly meet to pause for a while in contemplation of this all-perfect God, to ponder deliberately his marvellous attributes, to consider, admire, and adore the incomparable beauty of that immense light, at least so far as the strength of my mind, which remains in a manner dazzled by it, shall allow me to do so."[19] Thus it is that while descending into the depths of the understanding, the philosopher who is supposed to be absorbed in pure abstractions, discovers all at once a sublime brightness, and exclaims with the ancient patriarch: "The LORD is in this place, and I knew it not!"[20] God is everywhere; He is in the heights of heaven, He is in the depths of thought. Remember those celebrated words of Lord Chancellor Bacon: "A little knowledge inclineth the mind to atheism, but a further acquaintance therewith bringeth it back to religion."

God is not demonstrated, in the ordinary sense which we attach to the word demonstrate;[21] He is pointed out[22] as the source of all light. The attempt to demonstrate God as anything else is demonstrated, by descending, that is, from higher principles until the object in view is arrived at—this attempt implies a contradiction. God is in fact the first principle, the foundation of all principles, the principle beyond which there is nothing. We may describe the process by which the human mind rises to this supreme idea; but to wish to demonstrate God by mounting higher than Himself in order to look for a point of departure—this is literally to wish to light up the sun. If the sun of intelligences is extinguished, reason sets out on its way vaguely enlightened still with the remains of the light which it has reflected; but it is not long ere it is stumbling in darkness. Then it is that—be not deceived about it!—the doubts which Descartes called up by an act of his own will do in good earnest invade the soul. We possess a natural certainty, which does not suppose a clear view of God; we reason without thinking distinctly of the principles on which we reason, just as, when we are in a hurry, we take the shortest cut without thinking of the axiom of geometry which prescribes the straight line. But if we pass from the natural order of our thoughts into the domain of science, if we ask—what is it which guarantees to me the value of my reason? then the question is put, and many perish in the passage which separates natural faith from the domain of science,—that dangerous passage where doubt spreads out its perfidious fogs and its deceitful marshes. The moment the question is started of the worth of reason, and all the schools of scepticism do start it, our answer must be—God; and we must find light in this answer, or see thought invaded in its totality by an irremediable doubt. Then men come to ask themselves if all be not a lie; and they speak of the universal vanity, without making the reserve of Ecclesiastes.[23] There are more souls ill of this malady than are supposed to be so. Many begin by setting up proudly against God what they call the rights of reason, and by and by we see this reason, which has revolted against its Principle, vacillate, doubt of itself, and at last, losing itself in a bitter irony, wrap itself, with all beside, in the shroud of a universal scorn.

Without God reason is extinguished. What, in like case, will happen to the conscience? The conscience is a reality. I will say willingly in the style of the prophets: Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, ere I deny conscience, and disparage the sacred name of duty! Yes, conscience is a reality; but God is in it: He it is who gives to it its necessary basis and its indispensable support. The conscience is the august voice of the Master of the universe. God has given us the light of the understanding that we may see and comprehend some portions of the works which He has created without us: a work there is for which He would have us to be fellow-workers with Him. The heaven of stars is a spectacle for the eyes of the body, a grander spectacle still for the contemplation of the mind which has understood their wondrous mechanism. We admire them; but if the stars failed to attract our admiration, no one of them on that account would cease to trace its orbit. There is another heaven, a heaven of loving stars and free, the sight of which is one day to fill us with rapture, and the realization of which is to be the work of our love and of our will. Before we contemplate it we must make it; this is our high and awful privilege. The plan of the spiritual heavens is deposited in the soul, and the utterances of the conscience reveal it to the will. It is a law of justice and of love. This law is evermore violated, because it is proposed to liberty, and liberty rebels: it subsists evermore, because it is the work of the Almighty. Humanity, in its strange destiny, has never ceased to outrage the rule which it acknowledges, and to pronounce upon its own acts a ceaseless condemnation. The laws which are investigated by the physical sciences are the plan of the Creator realized in nature: the law proposed to liberty is the plan of the Creator to be realized by the community of minds. Such is the explanation of the conscience: God is its solid foundation.

Duty and God, morality and religion, are inseparable principles; all the efforts of a false philosophy have never succeeded, and never will succeed, in disjoining them. Men will never be prevented from believing that God is holy, and that His will is binding upon them: they will never be prevented from believing that holiness is divine, and that the will of God reveals itself in the admonitions of the conscience. Therefore the progress of religion and the progress of morality are closely united; the morality of a people depends above all on the idea which it forms to itself of God. The conscience, in fact, at the same time that it is real and permanent in its bases, is variable in the degrees of its light. It is enlightened or obscured, according as the man's religious conceptions are pure or corrupted; and, on the other hand, when the religious worship is degraded beyond a certain limit by error and the passions, the conscience protests, and by its protest purifies the religious conceptions. It has often been said, that in the onward march of humanity, morality is separated from faith, and comes at last to rest upon its own bases. It is a notion of the eighteenth century, which, although its root has been cut, is still throwing out shoots in our time. The attempt has been made to support this theory by the great name of Socrates. It is affirmed that the sage of Athens, breaking the bond which connects the earth with heaven, separated duty from its primitive source. Listen: Placed in the alternative of either renouncing his mission or dying, it is thus that Socrates addresses his judges: "Athenians, I honor you and I love you, but I will obey the Deity rather than you. My whole occupation is to persuade you, young and old, that before the care of the body and of riches, before every other care, is that of the soul and of its improvement. Know that this it is which the Deity prescribes to me, and I am persuaded that there can be nothing more advantageous to the republic than my zeal to fulfil the behest of the Deity."[24] Does the man who speaks in this way appear to you to have wished to break the link which connects morality with religion? He separates himself from the established religion; he pursues with his biting raillery shameful objects of worship; his conscience protests. But, while it protests, it attaches itself immediately to a higher and holier idea of that God, of whose perfections the sage of Athens had succeeded in obtaining a glimpse.

God then is the explanation of the conscience: He is moreover its support. It has need in sooth to be supported,—that voice which speaks within us; because it is unceasingly contradicted and denied. The spectacle which the world presents is not an edifying one; the facts which are taking place on the earth are not all of a nature to maintain the steadfastness of the moral feeling. Let us imagine an example, a striking example, such as it would be easy to find realized on a small scale in more commonplace events. A peaceable population, menaced in its most sacred rights, has taken up arms in the simplest and most legitimate self-defence. I do not allow my thoughts to rest upon the soldiers who are advancing to oppress it—mere instruments as they are in the hands of their leaders—but upon the leaders themselves. One of these, without the least necessity, with a calculating coolness, to which he sacrifices all the feelings of a man, or under the sway of one of those ferocious instincts which at times gain the mastery over the soul, gives up a town, a village, to all the horrors of slaughter, pillage, and fire. The blood of the victims will scarcely, perhaps, have grown cold, the last gleams of the fire will not yet be extinct, when this man shall be receiving the praises of his superiors. Men will laud the bravery and daring of his exploit; his sovereign will place upon his breast a brilliant cross, the august sign of the world's redemption; he will return to his country amidst the acclamations of the multitude, and drink in with delight the shouts of triumph which greet him as he moves on his way. For such things as these, is there to be no penalty but troublesome recollections which may sometimes be banished, and a few timid protests soon hushed by the loud voice of success? Verily there are perpetrated beneath the sun acts which cry aloud for vengeance. Have you never felt it—that mighty cry—rising from your own bosom, at the sight of some odious crime, or on reading such and such a page of history? And it must be so; it must be that the cry for vengeance will rise, until the soul has learnt to transform imprecation into prayer, and the desire for justice into supplication for the guilty. But if, in the presence of crime, we were forced to believe that there will never be either vengeance or pardon, the mainspring of the moral life would be broken, and humanity would at length exclaim, like Brutus in the plains of Philippi:—"Virtue! thou art but a name!"

The conscience is a reality; but its voice is troublesome, and the captious arguments which go to deny its value find support in the evil tendencies of our nature. If it has no faith in eternal justice it runs the risk of being blunted by contact with the world. So doubt takes place, doubt still deeper and more agonizing than that which bears upon the processes of the understanding. The questions which arise are such as these:—"This voice of duty—whence comes it? and what would it have? May not conscience be a prejudice, the result of education and of habit? It has little power, it seems, for it is braved with impunity. Many say that it is a factitious power from which one comes at last to deliver one's self by resisting it. Am I not the dupe of an illusion? I am losing joys which others allow themselves. Barriers encompass me on every hand, for there are for me prohibited actions, unwholesome beauties, culpable feelings. Others are free, and make a larger use of life in all directions. What if I too made trial of liberty!" Here lies the temptation. When the soul aspires to become larger than conscience and more tolerant than duty, it is not far from a fall. The honest woman will be tempted to repine at the liberty of the courtesan, and the man who is bound by his word will become capable of looking with envy on the liberty of the liar. Then come terrible experiences which teach at length that the unbinding of the passions is the hardest of slaveries, and that, in the struggle between inclination and duty, it is liberty which oppresses and law which sets free. Happy then is he who, feeling himself to be sinking in gloomy waters, cries to that God who is able to rescue him from the abyss, and strengthens his shaken conscience by replacing it on its solid foundation. "God speaks and reigns. All rebellion is transient in its nature; justice will at length be done. Justice may be slow in the eyes of the creature of a day, seeing that He who shall dispense it has eternity at his disposal." But if God be not a refuge for us from men and from the world, if, when we see all that is passing around us, we cannot cast a look beyond and above the earth, men may lose their faith in duty. And this faith is lost in fact. If there are not dead consciences, there are consciences at any rate singularly sunk in sleep. There are men for whom goodness, truth, justice, honor, seem to be a coinage of which they make use because it is current, but without for themselves attaching to it any value. These pieces of money have no longer in their eyes any visible impression, because the conception of the almighty and just God is the impression which determines duty and guarantees its value.

When the necessary alliance of moral order with religious thought is denied, the reality of conscience is opposed to what are called theological hypotheses always open to discussion. It is seen well enough that men may doubt of God, but it is supposed to be impossible to doubt of conscience. This is an illusion of generous minds. Those who would keep this illusion must not open the pages of the history of philosophy where the negation of duty does not occupy less space than the negation of God; they must not cast their eyes too much about them; they must also take care not to open the most widely circulated books, and the most fashionable periodicals: otherwise, as we shall see, they would not be long in finding out that this morality which they would fain have superior to all attacks, is perhaps what of all things is most attacked now-a-days, and that that conscience which it is impossible to deny is in fact the object of denials the most audacious on the part of a few of the present favorites of fame. The voice of duty is heard no doubt even when God does not come distinctly into mind; but when the questions are clearly put, if God is denied, conscience grows dim, and comes at last to be extinguished. This obscuration does not take place all at once: the potter's wheel goes on turning for a while, says an old Hindoo poem, after that the foot of the artisan is withdrawn from it. But the darkening takes place gradually with time: such at least is the general rule. There are exceptional men who seem to escape this law, and to bear in their bosom a God veiled from their own consciousness. Such men may be found, and even in considerable numbers, in a time like ours, when doubt is, in many cases, a prejudice which current opinion deposits on the surface of minds without penetrating them deeply. There are men all whose convictions have fallen into ruins, while their conscience continues standing like an isolated column, sole remaining witness of a demolished building. The meeting with these heroes of virtue inspires a mingled feeling of astonishment and respect. They are verily miracles of that divine goodness of which they are unable to pronounce the name. If there is a man on earth who ought to fall on both knees and shed burning tears of gratitude, it is the man who believes himself an atheist, and who has received from Providence so keen a taste for what is noble and pure, so strong an aversion for evil, that his sense of duty remains firm even when it has lost all its supports. But the exception does not make the rule; and that which is realized in the case of a few is not realized long, and for all. You know those crusts of snow which are formed over the crevasses of our glaciers. These slight bridges are able to bear one person who remains suspended over the abyss, but let several attempt to pass together,—the frail support gives way, and the rash adventurers fall together into the gulf. Such is the destiny of those schools of philosophy in which the notion of God disappears, and of those civilizations in which the sense of God is extinguished; they fall into dark regions where the light of goodness shines no longer.

After the mind and conscience, it remains for us to speak of the heart. Man, an intelligent and free being, has in his reason an instrument of knowledge, and in his conscience a rule for his will. But man is not sufficient for himself, and cannot live upon his own resources. If you inquire what the word heart expresses, in its most general acceptation, you will find that it always expresses a tendency of the soul to look, out of itself, in things or persons, for the support and nourishment of its individual life. Does the question concern the relations of man with his fellows? The heart is the organ of communication of one soul with another, for receiving, or for giving, or for giving and receiving at the same time, in the enjoyment of the blessing of a mutual affection. The heart is in each of us what those marks are upon the scattered stones of a building in course of construction which indicate that they are to be united one to another. The philosopher suffices for himself, the stoics used to say; the heart is the negation of this haughty maxim. From the heart proceeds love, that son of abundance and of poverty, to speak with Plato, that needy one ever on the search for his lost heritage. Love has wings, said again the wisdom of the Greeks, wings which essay to carry him ever higher. Let us extricate the thought which is involved in these graceful figures: Our desires have no limits, and indefinite desires can be satisfied only by meeting with an infinite Being who can be an inexhaustible source of happiness, an eternal object of love. "Our heart is made for love," said Saint Augustine, the great Christian disciple of Plato: "therefore it is unquiet till it finds repose in God." From this unrest proceed all our miseries. Men do not always succeed in contenting themselves with a petty prosaic happiness, a dull and paltry well-being, and in stifling the while the grand instincts of our nature. If then the heart lives, and fails of its due object; if it does not meet with the supreme term of its repose, its indefinite aspirations attach themselves to objects which cannot satisfy them, and thence arise stupendous aberrations. With some, it is the pursuit of sensual gratifications; they rush with a kind of fury into the passions of their lower nature. With others it is the ardent pursuit of riches, power, fame,—feelings which are always crying more: More! and never: Enough. And the after-taste from the fruitless search after happiness in the paths of ambition and vanity is not less bitter perhaps than the after-taste from sensual enjoyments. Listen to the confession of a man whose works, full as they are of beauties, are disfigured by so many impure allusions, that the author appears to have indulged, more than most others, in the giddy follies and culpable pleasures of life:

If, tired of mocking dreams, my restless heart Returns to take its fill of waking joy, Full soon I loathe the pleasures which impart No true delight, but kill me, while they cloy.[25]

Here are the accents of a true confession. These are moreover truths of daily experience. I have seen—and which of you could not render similar testimony?—I have seen the sick man, deprived of all the ordinary avocations and amusements of life, and with pain for his constant companion, I have seen him find joy in the thought of his God, and feeding, without satiety, on this bread of contentment. I have seen the face of the blind lighted up by a living faith, and radiant with a light of peace, for him sweeter and brighter than the rays of the sun. But where God is wanting, and all connection is broken with the source of joy, there you shall see the richest of the rich, the most prosperous among the ambitious, the man of fame whose renown is most widely extended,—you shall see these men carrying the heavy burden of discontent. Their brow, unillumined by the celestial ray, is furrowed by the lines of sadness. If you meet them in a moment of candor, these rich, ambitious, and famous men will tell you with a sigh: "All this does not satisfy; we are but pursuing chimeras." Still they continue to run after these chimeras. They cry Vanity! Vanity! and they do not cease to pursue vanity. They flee from themselves: if they retired within themselves, they would find there ennui, inexorable ennui, which is but the sense of that place which God should fill left void in the depth of the soul. For the deceived heart, life becomes a bitter comedy. Those who do not succeed in blinding themselves by the dust of thoughtless folly, end oftentimes by wrapping themselves in disdain as with a cloak; they seek a sad and solitary satisfaction in the greatness of their contempt for life. But neither does this satisfy: disdain is not a beverage, and contempt is not food.

Such are the destinies of the heart, to which God is wanting. But I hope, Gentlemen, that you have here some remonstrances to offer. I have just spoken of the pleasures of sense, of pride, of vanity, and I have made no allusion to those affections in which the heart manifests its highest qualities. Shall we forget the joys of pure love? the domestic hearth? friendship? country? Do not fear that, having given myself up to a fit of misanthropy, I am come hither to blaspheme the true happinesses of life. But do the affections of earth offer us sufficient guarantees? We have need of the infinite to answer to the immensity of our desires; in the presence of those we love, have we no need of the Eternal that we may lean our hearts on Him? Will not all human love become a source of torment, if we have no faith in the love of Him who will stamp holy affections with the seal of His own eternity?

A single question will suffice to enlighten us on this head. Do you know the feeling of anxiety? We all know it, though in different degrees. Epidemical disease may appear. The cholera has started on its course; it has left the interior of Asia, and is approaching. The report is current that neighboring cities have begun to feel its ravages. Those we love—in a month, in a week, where will they be? War is declared. We hear of preparations for death; the sovereigns of Europe apply themselves to calculations which seem to portend torrents of blood. If war breaks out, that brother, that son, who will have to take up arms, that daughter who will one day perhaps find herself at the mercy of an unbridled soldiery——. But let us not look for examples so far away. Have you no dear one in a distant land of whom you are expecting tidings? And those who are near you! To-morrow, to-day, now perhaps, while you are listening to me, a fatal malady is discovering its first symptoms——. Have you received the hard lessons of death? If you see children playing, full of ruddy and joyous health, does it happen to none of you to think of another child, once the joy of your fireside, now lying beneath the sod? Does it never happen to you, by a sinister presentiment, to see features you love to gaze on convulsed with agony or pale in death? And yet you must either see the death of your beloved ones, or they must lay you in the earth; for every life ends with the tomb, and we do but walk over graves. When the soul has been thus wounded by anxiety, for this poisoned wound there is one remedy, but only one: "God reigns!" Nothing happens without the permission of His goodness. And of all those who are dear to us, we can say: "Father, to Thy hands I commit them." If we are without this trust, we shall only escape torment by levity. Without God our mind is sick; our conscience and our heart are sick also, and in a way more grievous still.


[19] Meditation troisieme, at the end.

[20] Gen. xxviii. 16.

[21] Demontrer.

[22] "On le montre."

[23] "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.... Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man." (Eccles. i. and xii.)

[24] Apology.


Si mon coeur, fatigue du reve qui l'obsede, A la realite revient pour s'assouvir, Au fond des vains plaisirs que j'appelle a mon aide, Je trouve un tel degout que je me sens mourir.



We have just studied what life without God would be for the individual. Let us now direct our attention to those collections of human beings which form societies. We shall not speak here of the relations of civil with ecclesiastical authorities,—a complex question, the solution of which must vary with times, places, and circumstances. Let us only remark that the distinction between the temporal and spiritual order of things is one of the foundations of modern civilization. This distinction is based upon those great words which, eighteen hundred years ago, separated the domain of God from the domain of Caesar. Religion considered as a function of civil life; dogma supported by the word of a monarch or the vote of a body politic; the formula of that dogma imposed forcibly by a government on the lips of the governed—these are debris of paganism which have been struggling for centuries against the restraints of Christian thought.[26] The religious convictions of individuals do not belong to the State; religious sentiments are not amenable to human tribunals; and it would be hard to say whether it is the spiritual or the temporal order of things which suffers most from the confusion of these distinct domains. Religion should have its own proper life, and its special representatives; civil life ought to be set free from all tyranny exercised in the name of dogma; but religion is not the less on that account, by the influence which it exerts over the consciences of men, the necessary bond and strength of human society.

"You would sooner build a city in the air," said Plutarch, "than cause a State to subsist without religion." Some have contested in modern times this opinion of ancient wisdom. The philosophy of the last century, as we have said already, wished to separate duty from the idea of God. It pretended to give as the only foundation for society a civil morality, the rules and sanction of which were to be found upon earth. The men of blood who for a short time governed France, gave once as the order of the day—Terror and all the virtues: this was a terrible application of this theory. Virtue rested on a decree of political power, and, for want of the judgment of God, the guillotine was the sanction of its precepts. Healthier views begin now to prevail in the schools of philosophy. One of the members of the Institut de France, M. Franck, has lately published a volume on the history of ancient civilization,[27] with the express intention of showing that the conception which a people has of God is the true root of its social organization. According to the worth of the religious idea is that of the civil constitution. Before M. Franck, twenty years ago, a man of the very highest distinction as a public lecturer, indicated this movement of modern thought. M. Edgard Quinet, in his Lyons course, taught that the religious idea is the very substance of civilization, and the generating principle of political constitutions. He announced "a history of civilization by the monuments of human thought," and added: "Religion above all is the pillar of fire which goes before the nations in their march across the ages; it shall serve us as a guide."[28] Benjamin Constant exhibits in the variation of his opinions the transition from the stand-point of the last century to that of the present. He had at first conceived of his work upon religion as a monument raised to atheism, he ends by seeking in religious sentiments the condition necessary to the existence of civilized societies.[29] Here is a real progress; and this progress brings us back to the thought above quoted from Plutarch. In fact, take away the idea of God, and the first consequence will be that you will sacrifice all the conquests of modern civilization; the next, that you will soon have rendered impossible the existence of any society whatever. I am going to ask your close attention to these two points successively.

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