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3. The present knowledge of man is exactly adapted to his present wants. It is sufficient to warn us of, and to preserve us from, most of the evils to which we are now exposed; and to procure us whatever is necessary for us in this our infant state of existence. We know enough of the nature and sensible qualities of the things that are round about us, so far as they are subservient to the health and strength of our bodies; we know how to procure and prepare our food; we know what raiment is fit to cover us; we know how to build our houses, and to furnish them with all necessaries and conveniences; we know just as much as is conducive to our living comfortably in this world: but of innumerable things above, below, and round about us, we know little more than that they exist. And in this our deep ignorance is seen the goodness, as well as the wisdom of God, in cutting short his knowledge on every side, on purpose to "hide pride from man."
4. Therefore it is, that by the very constitution of their nature, the wisest of men "know [but] in part." And how amazingly small a part do they know, either of the Creator, or of his works! This is a very needful, but a very unpleasing theme; for "vain man would be wise." Let us reflect upon it for awhile. And may the God of wisdom and love open our eyes to discern our own ignorance!
I. 1. To begin with the great Creator himself. How astonishingly little do we know of God !-How small a part of his nature do we know ! Of his essential attributes. What conception can we form of his omnipresence? Who is able to comprehend, how God is in this and every place? How he fills the immensity of space? If philosophers, by denying the existence of a vacuum, only meant that there is no place empty of God; that every point of infinite space is full of God; certainly no man could call it in question. But still, the fact being admitted, what is omnipresence or ubiquity? Man is no more able to comprehend this, than to grasp the universe.
2. The omnipresence or immensity of God, sir Isaac Newton endeavours to illustrate by a strong expression, by terming infinite space, "the sensorium of the Deity." And the very heathens did not scruple to say, All things are full of God:" just equivalent with his own declaration ;"Do not I fill heaven and earth, saith the Lord?" How beautifully does the Psalmist illustrate this! "Whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I go up into heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there thy hand shall find me, and thy right hand shall hold me.' But, in the mean time, what conception can we form, either of his eternity or immensity? Such knowledge is too wonderful for us: we cannot attain unto it.
3. A second essential attribute of God is eternity. He existed before all time. Perhaps we might more properly say, he does exist from everlasting to everlasting. But what is eternity? A celebrated author says, that the divine eternity is, " Vitæ interminabilis tota simul et perfecta possessio:" The at once entire and perfect possession of never ending life. But how much wiser are we for this definition? We know just as much of it as we did before. "The at once entire and perfect possession?" Who can conceive what this means?
4. If indeed God had stamped (as some have maintained) an idea of himself on every human soul, we must certainly have understood
something of these, as well as his other attributes; for we cannot suppose he would have impressed upon us either a false or an imperfect idea of himself; but the truth is, no man ever did, or does now, find any such idea stamped upon his soul. The little which we do know of God (except what we receive by the inspiration of the Holy One,) we do not gather from any inward impression; but gradually acquire from without. "The invisible things of God," if they are known at all, "are known from the things that are made;" not from what God hath written in our hearts, but from what he hath written in all his works.
5. Hence then, from his works, particularly his works of creation, we are to learn the knowledge of God. But it is not easy to conceive how little we know even of these. To begin with those that are at a distance: who knows how far the universe extends? What are the limits of it? The morning stars can tell, who sang together, when the lines of it were stretched out; when God said, "This be thy just circumference, oh world!" But all beyond the fixed stars is utterly hid from the children of men. And what do we know of the fixed stars? Whotelleth the number of them? Even that small portion of them, that by their mingled light form, what we call, "the milky way?" And who knows the use of them? Are they so many suns that illuminate their respective planets? Or do they only minister t› this, (as Mr. Hutchinson supposes,) and contribute in some unknown way, to the perpetual circulation of light and spirit? Who knows what comets are? Are they planets not fully formed? Or planets destroyed by conflagration? Or are they bodies of a wholly different nature, of which we can form no idea? Who can tell what is the sun? Its use we know; but who knows of what substance it is composed? Nay, we are not yet able to determine, whether it be fluid or solid! Who knows what is the precise distance of the sun from the earth? Many astronomers are persuaded it is a hundred millions of miles; others, that it is only eighty six millions, though generally accounted ninety. But equally great men say, it is no more than fifty; some of them, that it is but twelve: last comes Dr. Rogers, and demonstrates that it is just two millions, nine hundred thousand miles! So little do we know even of this glorious luminary, the eye and soul of the lower world! And just as much of the planets that surround him; yea, of our own planet, the moon. Some indeed have discovered
"Rivers and mountains on her spotty globe;"
have marked out all her seas and continents! but after all, we know just nothing of the matter. We have nothing but mere uncertain conjecture, concerning the nearest of all the heavenly bodies.
6. But let us come to the things that are still nearer home, and inquire what knowledge we have of them. How much do we know of that wonderful body, light? How is it communicated to us? Does it flow in a continued stream from the sun? Or does the sun impel the particles next his orb, and so on and on, to the extremity of his system? Again: does light gravitate or not? Does it attract or repel other bodies? Is it subject to the general laws, which obtain in all other matter? Or is it a body sui generis, altogether different from all other matter? Is it the same with electric fluid, or not? Who can explain the phenomena of electricity? Who knows why some bodies conduct the electric fluid, and others arrest its course? Why is the phial capable of being charged
to such a point, and no farther? A thousand more questions might be asked on this head, which no man living can answer.
7. But surely we understand the air we breathe, and which encompasses us on every side. By that admirable property of elasticity, it is the general spring of nature. But is elasticity essential to air, and inseparable from it? Nay, it has been lately proved, by numberless experiments, that air may be fixed, that is, divested of its elasticity, and generated, or restored to it again. Therefore it is no otherwise elastic, than as it is connected with electric fire. And is not this electric or ethereal fire, the only true essential elastic in nature? Who knows by what power dew, rain, and other vapours, rise and fall in the air? Can we account for the phenomenon of them upon the common principles? Or must we own, with a late ingenious author, that those principles are utterly insufficient, and that they cannot be rationally accounted for, but upon the principle of electricity?
8. Let us now descend to the earth which we tread upon, and which God has peculiarly given to the children of men. Do the children of men understand this? Suppose the terraqueous globe to be seven or eight thousand miles in diameter, how much of this do we know? Per haps a mile or two of its surface: so far the art of man has penetrated. But who can inform us, what lies beneath the region of stones, metals, minerals, and other fossils? This is only a thin crust, which bears an exceeding small proportion to the whole. Who can acquaint us with the inner parts of the globe? Whereof do these consist? Is there a central fire, a grand reservoir, which not only supplies the burning mountains, but also ministers (though we know not how) to the ripening of gems and metals; yea, and perhaps to the production of vegetables, and the well being of animals too? Or is the great deep still contained in the bowels of the earth? A central abyss of waters? Who hath seen? Who can tell? Who can give any solid satisfaction to a rational inquirer ?
9. How much of the very surface of the globe is still utterly unknown to us! How very little do we know of the polar regions, either north or south, either in Europe or Asia! How little of those vast countries, the inland parts either of Africa or America! Much less do we know what is contained in the broad sea, the great abyss, which covers so large a part of the globe. Most of its chambers are inaccessible to man, so that we cannot tell how they are furnished. How little do we know of those things on the dry land, which fall directly under our notice! Consider even the most simple metals or stones: how imperfectly are we acquainted with their nature and properties! Who knows what it is that distinguishes metals from all other fossils? It is answered, “Why, they are heavier." Very true: but what is the cause of their being heavier? What is the specific difference between metals and stones? Or between one metal and another? Between gold and silver? Between tin and lead? It is all mystery to the sons of men.
10. Proceed we to the vegetable kingdom. Who can demonstrate that the sap, in any vegetable, performs a regular circulation through its vessels, or that it does not? Who can point out the specific difference between one kind of plant and another? Or the peculiar, internal conformation and disposition of their component parts? Yea, what man living, thoroughly understands the nature and properties of any one plant under heaven?
11. With regard to animals: are microscopic animals, so called, real animals or no? If they are, are they not essentially different from all other animals in the universe, as not requiring any food, not generating or being generated? Are they no animals at all, but merely inanimate particles of matter, in a state of fermentation? How totally ignorant are the most sagacious of men touching the whole affair of generation! Even the generation of men. In the book of the Creator, indeed, were all our members written, "which day by day were fashioned, when as yet there were none of them." But by what rule were they fashioned ? In what manner? By what means was the first motion communicated to the punctum saliens? When, and how, was the immortal spirit superadded to the senseless clay? It is mystery all: and we can only say, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
12. With regard to insects, many are the discoveries which have been lately made. But how little is all that is discovered yet, in comparison of what is undiscovered? How many millions of them, by their extreme minuteness, totally escape all our inquiries? And, indeed, the minute parts of the largest animals, elude our utmost diligence. Have we a more complete knowledge of fishes than we have of insects? A great part, if not the greatest part, of the inhabitants of the waters, are totally concealed from us. It is probable, the species of sea animals are full as numerous as the land animals. But how few of them are known to us! And it is very little we know of those few. With birds we are a little better acquainted: and, indeed, it is but a little. For of very many we know hardly any thing more than their outward shape. We know a few of the obvious properties of others, chiefly those that frequent our houses. But we have not a thorough, adequate knowledge even of them. How little do we know of beasts! We do not know whence the different tempers and qualities arise, not only in different species of them, but in individuals of the same species; yea, and frequently in those which spring from the same parents, the same both male and female animal. Are they mere machines? Then they are incapable of pleasure or pain. Nay, they can have no senses; they neither see nor hear; they neither taste nor smell. Much less can they know, or remember, or move, any otherwise than they are impelled from without. But all this, as daily experiments show, is quite contrary to matter of fact.
13. Well; but if we know nothing else, do not we know ourselves? Our bodies and our souls? What is our soul? It is a spirit, we know. But what is a spirit? Here we are at a full stop. And where is the soul lodged? In the pineal gland? In the whole brain? In the heart? In the blood? In any single part of the body? Or, (if any one can understand those terms,) "all in all, and all in every part?" How is the soul united to the body? A spirit to a clod? What is the secret, imperceptible chain that couples them together? Can the wisest of men give a satisfactory answer to any one of these plain questions?
And as to our body itself, how little do we know! During a night's sleep, a healthy man respires one part in four less when he sweats, than when he does not. Who can account for this? What is flesh? That of the muscles in particular? Are the fibres that compose it of a determinate size? So that they can be divided only so far? Or are they resolvable in infinitum? How does a muscle act? By being inflated,
and consequently shortened? But what is it inflated with? If with blood, how and whence comes that blood? And whither does it go, the moment the muscle is relaxed? Are the nerves pervious or solid? How do they act? By vibration or transmission of the animal spirits? Who knows what the animal spirits are? Are they electric fire? What is sleep? Wherein does it consist? What is dreaming? How can we know dreams from waking thoughts? I doubt no man knows. Oh how little do we know, even concerning ourselves! What then can we expect to know, concerning the whole creation of God?
II. 1. But are we not better acquainted with his works of providence, than with his works of creation? It is one of the first principles of religion, that his kingdom ruleth over all: so that we may say with confidence, "Oh Lord our Governor, how excellent is thy name over all the earth!" It is a childish conceit, to suppose chance governs the world, or has any part in the government of it: no, not even in those things that, to a vulgar eye, appear to be perfectly casual. "The lot is cast into the lap; but the disposal thereof is from the Lord." Our blessed Master himself has put this matter beyond all possible doubt : Not a sparrow, saith he, falleth to the ground without the will of your Father which is in heaven: yea, (to express the thing more strongly still,)" Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered."
2. But although we are well apprized of this general truth, that all things are governed by the providence of God; (the very language of the heathen orator, "Deorum moderamine cuncta geri") yet how amazingly little do we know of the particulars contained under this general! How little do we understand of his providential dealings, either with regard to nations, or families, or individuais? There are heights and depths in all these, which our understanding can in no wise fathom. We can comprehend but a small part of his ways now; the rest we shall know hereafter.
3. Even with regard to entire nations, how little do we comprehend of God's providential dealings with them! What innumerable nations in the eastern world once flourished, to the terror of all around them, and are now swept away from the face of the earth; and their memorial is perished with them! Nor has the case been otherwise in the west. In Europe also we read of many large and powerful kingdoms, of which the names only are left: the people are vanished away, and are as though they had never been. But why it has pleased the Almighty Governor of the world, to sweep them away with the besom of destruction, we cannot tell those who succeeded them being, many times, little better than themselves.
4. But it is not only with regard to ancient nations, that the providential dispensations of God are utterly incomprehensible to us: the same difficulties occur now. We cannot account for his present dealings with the inhabitants of the earth. We know," the Lord is loving unto every man, and his mercy is over all his works." But we know not how to reconcile this with the present dispensations of his providence. At this day, is not almost every part of the earth full of darkness and cruel habitations? In what a condition, in particular, is the large and populous empire of Indostan! How many hundred thousands of the poor, quiet people, have been destroyed, and their carcasses left as the dung of the earth! In what a condition, (though they have no English