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Sermon XVI: The Meteor Shower

(Preached at the Chapel Royal, St. James's, Nov. 26, 1866.)

ST. MATTHEW x. 29, 30.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.

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It will be well for us to recollect, once for all, who spoke these words; even Jesus Christ, who declared that He was one with God the Father; Jesus Christ, whom His apostles declared to be the Creator of the universe. If we believe this, as Christian men, it will be well for us to take our Lord's account of a universe which He Himself created; and to believe that in the most minute occurrence of nature, there is a special providence, by which not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father.

I confess that it is difficult to believe this heartily. It was never anything but difficult. In the earliest ages, those who first thought about the universe found it so difficult that they took refuge in the fancy of special providence which was administered by the planets above their heads, and believed that the affairs of men, and of the world on which they lived, were ruled by the aspects of the sun and moon, and the host of heaven.

Men found it so difficult in the Middle Age, that they took refuge in the fancy of a special providence administered by certain demi-gods whom they called 'The Saints;' and believed that each special disease, or accident, was warded off from mankind, from their cattle, or from their crops, by a special saint who overlooked their welfare.

Men find it so difficult now-a-days, that the great majority of civilized people believe in no special providence at all, and take refuge in the belief that the universe is ruled by something which they call law.

Therein, doubtless, they have hold of a great truth; but one which will be only half-true, and therefore injurious, unless it be combined with other truths; unless questions are answered which too many do not care to answer: as, for instance,--Can there be a law without a law-giver? Can a law work without one who administers the law? Are not the popular phrases of 'laws impressed on matter,' 'laws inherent in matter,' mere metaphors, dangerous, because inaccurate; confirmed as little by experience and reason, as by Scripture?

Does not all law imply a will? Does not an Almighty Will imply a special providence?

But these are questions for which most persons have neither time nor inclination. Indeed, the whole matter is unimportant to them. They have no special need of a special providence. Their lives and properties are very safe in this civilized country; and their secret belief is that, whatever influence God may have on the next world, He has little or no influence on this world; neither on the facts of nature, nor on the events of history, nor on the course of their own lives; and that a special providence seems to them--if they dare confess as much--an unnecessary superstition.

Only poor folk in cottages and garrets--and a few more who are, happily, poor in spirit, though not in purse--grinding amid the iron facts of life, and learning there by little sound science, it may be, but much sound theology--still believe that they have a Father in heaven, before whom the very hairs of their head are all numbered; and that if they had not, then this would not only be a bad world, but a mad world likewise; and that it were better for them that they had never been born.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe in the special providence of our Father in heaven. Difficult: though necessary. Just as it is difficult to believe that the earth moves round the sun. Contrary, like that fact, to a great deal of our seeming experience.

It is easy enough, of course, to believe that our Father sends what is plainly good. Not so easy to believe that He sends what at least seems evil.

Easy enough, when we see spring-time and harvest, sunshine and flowers, to say--Here are 'acts of God's providence.' Not so easy, when we see blight and pestilence, storm and earthquake, to say,-- Here are 'acts of God's providence' likewise.

For this innumerable multitude of things, of which we now-a-days talk as if it were one thing, and had an organic unity of its own, or even as if it were one person, and had a will of its own, and call it Nature--a word which will one day be forgotten by philosophers, with the 'four elements,' and the 'animal spirits;'--this multitude of things, I say, which we miscall Nature, has its dark and ugly, as well as its bright and fair side. Nature, says some one, is like the spotted panther--most playful, and yet most treacherous; most beautiful, and yet most cruel. It acts at times after a fashion most terrible, undistinguishing, wholesale, seemingly pitiless. It seems to go on its own way, as in a storm or an earthquake, careless of what it crushes. Terrible enough Nature looks to the savage, who thinks it crushes him from mere caprice. More terrible still does Science make Nature look, when she tells us that it crushes, not by caprice, but by brute necessity; not by ill-will, but by inevitable law. Science frees us in many ways (and all thanks to her) from the bodily terror which the savage feels. But she replaces that, in the minds of many, by a moral terror which is far more overwhelming. Am I--a man is driven to ask--am I, and all I love, the victims of an organised tyranny, from which there can be no escape--for there is not even a tyrant from whom I may perhaps beg mercy? Are we only helpless particles, at best separate parts of the wheels of a vast machine, which will use us till it has worn us away, and ground us to powder? Are our bodies--and if so, why not our souls?--the puppets, yea, the creatures of necessary circumstances, and all our strivings and sorrows only vain beatings against the wires of our cage, cries of 'Why hast thou made me, then?' which are addressed to nothing? Tell us not that the world is governed by universal law; the news is not comfortable, but simply horrible, unless you can tell us, or allow others to tell us, that there is a loving giver, and a just administrator of that law.

Horrible, I say, and increasingly horrible, not merely to the sentimentalist, but to the man of sound reason and of sound conscience, must the scientific aspect of nature become, if a mere abstraction called law is to be the sole ruler of the universe; if-- to quote the famous words of the German sage--'If, instead of the Divine Eye, there must glare on us an empty, black, bottomless eye- socket;' and the stars and galaxies of heaven, in spite of all their present seeming regularity, are but an 'everlasting storm which no man guides.'

It was but a few days ago that we, and this little planet on which we live, caught a strange and startling glimpse of that everlasting storm which--shall I say it?--no one guides.

We were swept helpless, astronomers tell us, through a cloud of fiery stones, to which all the cunning bolts which man invents to slay his fellow-man, are but slow and weak engines of destruction.

We were free from the superstitious terror with which that meteor- shower would have been regarded in old times. We could comfort ourselves, too, with the fact that heaven's artillery was not known as yet to have killed any one; and with the scientific explanation of that fact, namely, that most of the bolts were small enough to be melted and dissipated by their rush through our atmosphere.

But did the thought occur to none of us, how morally ghastly, in spite of all its physical beauty, was that grand sight, unless we were sure that behind it all, there was a living God? Unless we believed that not one of those bolts fell, or did not fall to the ground without our Father? That He had appointed the path, and the time, and the destiny, and the use of every atom of that matter, of which science could only tell us that it was rushing without a purpose, for ever through the homeless void?

We may believe that, mind, without denying scientific laws, or their permanence in any way. It is not a question, this, of a living God, whether He interferes with His own laws now and then, but whether interference is not the law of all laws itself. It is not a question of special providences here and there, in favour of this person or that; but whether the whole universe and its history is not one perpetual and innumerable series of special providences. Whether the God who ordained the laws is not so administering them, so making them interfere with, balance, and modify each other, as to cause them to work together perpetually for good; so that every minutest event (excepting always the sin and folly of rational beings) happens in the place, time, and manner, where it is specially needed. In one word, the question is not whether there be a God, but whether there be a living God, who is in any true and practical sense Master of the universe over which He presides; a King who is actually ruling His kingdom, or an Epicurean deity who lets his kingdom rule itself.

Is there a living God in the universe, or is there none? That is the greatest of all questions. Has our Lord Jesus Christ answered it, or has He not? Easy, well-to-do people, who find this world pleasant, and whose chief concern is to live till they die, care little about that question. This world suits them well enough, whether there be a living God or not; and as for the next world, they will be sure to find some preacher or confessor who will set their minds easy about it.

Fanatics and bigots, of all denominations, care little about that question. For they say in their hearts--'God is our Father, whosesoever Father He is not. We are His people, and God performs acts of providence for us. But as for the people outside, who know not the law, nor the Gospel, either, they are accursed. It is not our concern to discuss whether God performs acts of providence for them.'

But here and there, among rich and poor, there are those whose heart and flesh--whose conscience and whose intellect--cry out for the living God, and will know no peace till they have found Him.

A living God; a true God; a real God; a God worthy of the name; a God who is working for ever, everywhere, and in all; who hates nothing that He has made, forgets nothing, neglects nothing; a God who satisfies not only their heads, but their hearts; not only their logical intellects, but their higher reason--that pure reason, which is one with the conscience and moral sense. For Him they cry out; Him they seek: and if they cannot find Him they know no rest. For then they can find no explanation of the three great human questions- -Where am I? Whither am I going? What must I do?

Men come to them and say, 'Of course there is a God.--He created the world long ago, and set it spinning ever since by unchangeable laws.' But they answer, 'That may be true; but I want more. I want the living God.'

Other men come to them and say, 'Of course there is a God; and when the universe is destroyed, He will save a certain number of the elect, or orthodox. Do you take care that you are among that number, and leave the rest to Him.' But they answer, 'That may be true; but I want more. I want the living God.'

They will say so very confusedly. They will often not be able to make men understand their meaning. Nay, they will say and do--driven by despair--very unwise things. They will even fall down and worship the Holy Bread in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and say, 'The living God is in that. You have forbidden us, with your theories, to find the living God either in heaven or earth. But somewhere He must be. And in despair, we will fall back upon the old belief that He is in the wafer on the altar, and find there Him whom our souls must find, or be for ever without a home.' Strange and sad, that that should be the last outcome of the century of mechanical philosophy. But before we blame the doctrine as materialistic,--which, I fear, it too truly is,--we should remember that, for the last fifty years, the young have been taught more and more to be materialists; that they have been taught more and more to believe in a God who rules over Sundays, but not over week-day business; over the next world, but not over this; a God, in short, in whom men do not live, and move, and have their being. They have been brought up, I say, unconsciously, but surely, as practical materialists, who make their senses the ground of all their knowledge; and therefore, when a revulsion happens to them, they are awakened to look for the living God--they look for him instinctively in visible matter.

But for the living God thoughtful men will look more and more. Physical science is forcing on them the question, Do we live, and move, and have our being in God? Is there a real and perpetual communication between the visible and the invisible world, or is there not? Are all the beliefs of man, from the earliest ages, that such there was, dreams and nothing more? Is any religion whatsoever to be impossible henceforth? And to find an answer, men will go, either backward to superstition, or forward into pantheism; for in atheism, whether practical or theoretical, they cannot abide.

The Bible says that those old beliefs, however partial or childish, were no dreams, but instincts of an eternal truth; that there is such a communication between the universe and the living God. Prophets, Psalmists, Apostles, speak--like our Nicene Creed--of a Spirit of God, the Lord and Giver of Life, in words which are not pantheism, but are the very deliverance from pantheism, because they tell us that that Spirit proceeds, not merely from a Deity, not merely from a Creator, but from a Father in heaven, and from a Son who is His likeness and His Word.

And from this ground Natural Theology must start, if it is ever to revive again, instead of remaining, as now, an extinct science. It must begin from the keyword of the text, 'Your Father.' As long as Natural Theology begins from nature, and not from God Himself, it will inevitably drift into pantheism, as Pope drifted, in spite of himself, when he tried to look from nature up to nature's God. As long as men speculate on the dealings of a Deity or of a Creator, they will find out nothing, because they are searching under the wrong name, and therefore, as logicians will tell you, for the wrong thing.

But when they begin to seek under the right name--the name which our Lord revealed to the debased multitudes of Judaea, when He told them that not a sparrow fell to the ground without--not the Deity, not the Creator, but their Father; then, in God's good time, all may come clear once more.

This at least will come clear,--a doubt which often presents itself to the mind of scientific men.

This earth--we know now that it is not the centre, not the chief body, of the universe, but a tiny planet, a speck, an atom among millions of bodies far vaster than itself.

It was credible enough in old times, when the earth was held to be all but the whole universe, that God should descend on earth, and take on Him human nature, to save human beings. Is it credible now? This little corner of the systems and the galaxies? This paltry race which we call man? Are they worthy of the interposition, of the death, of Incarnate God--of the Maker of such a universe as Science has discovered?

Yes. If we will keep in mind that one word 'Father.' Then we dare say Yes, in full assurance of Faith. For then we have taken the question off the mere material ground of size and of power; to put it once and for ever on that spiritual ground of justice and love, which is implied in the one word--'Father.'

If God be a perfect Father, then there must be a perpetual intercourse of some kind between Him and His children; between Him and that planet, however small, on which He has set His children, that they may be educated into His likeness. If God be perfect justice, the wrong, and consequent misery of the universe, how ever small, must be intolerable to Him. If God be perfect love, there is no sacrifice--remember that great word--which He may not condescend to make, in order to right that wrong, and alleviate that misery. If God be the Father of our spirits, the spiritual welfare of His children may be more important to Him than the fate of the whole brute matter of the universe. Think not to frighten us with the idols of size and height. God is a Spirit, before whom all material things are equally great, and equally small. Let us think of Him as such, and not merely as a Being of physical power and inventive craft. Let us believe in our Father in heaven. For then that higher intellect,--that pure reason, which dwells not in the heads, but in the hearts of men, will tell them that if they have a Father in heaven, He must be exercising a special providence over the minutest affairs of their lives, by which He is striving to educate them into His likeness; a special providence over the fate of every atom in the universe, by which His laws shall work together for the moral improvement of every creature capable thereof; that not a sparrow can fall to the ground without his knowledge; and that not a hair of their head can be touched, unless suffering is needed for the education of their souls.

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Charles Kingsley