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Chapter III | The Theological Veto

§ 1. The theological veto

When the Light Brigade charged at Balaclava, they found their progress impeded by the volleying and thundering of cannon both to the right and to the left. Philosophers who seek to tread the path of natural theology are in a similar plight. We have already had to meet the artillery of the Logical Positivists on the Left, but this seems almost like casual sniping when compared with the big guns of the Theological Positivists on the Right. Professor Ayer may think that natural theology is nonsense; but he is too indifferent to religion to be persistently aggressive, and if he places a ban on theological argument, he is perfectly willing to examine politely any rational arguments that may be brought forward against the ban itself. But to Karl Barth—if he may be taken as the leading representative of Theological Positivism—religion is of all-engrossing concern, and he insists that natural theology is not merely silly but positively sinful. The sin in question is intellectual pride: it may be compared to the sin of Adam in seeking, despite God's prohibition, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To Barth the voice of natural theology is the voice of the serpent; and what you do with a serpent is not to stare at it till it hypnotizes you, but ‘to take a stick to it and kill it as soon as you see it’. Not only is the whole subject under a ban or veto, but the very ban itself is not open to rational discussion. Even the mild attempts made by Emil Brunner, his former brother-in-arms, to argue the matter out and to assign a most modest and subordinate function to natural theology are greeted with an ‘Angry Preface’ and a formidable ‘No’.

The bitterness with which this fraternal discussion was conducted, at least on one side, is surprising at a time when all religion is under assault and the differences of sects might seem of minor importance. But family feuds are often the most fierce, and the methods of theological controversy in Germany are traditionally less restrained than in this country. It is also fair to say that the dispute arose during a political crisis, when the Nazis were threatening the Church with the aid of the so-called ‘German Christians’. Barth seems to have believed that once natural theology, with its appeal to human reason, was countenanced by religious men, the main defence against political encroachment would be gone. Yet when all this is allowed, it must still be said that a display of anger is a poor recommendation for any form of religion.

The details of this dispute do not concern us here, but Barth is making a claim that his own orthodoxy must be exempt from all independent rational criticism: it cannot even allow natural theology to exist side-by-side with itself. This intolerant attitude does concern us as a recurrent phenomenon in religion. It is found, for example, among those Mohammedan theologians who rejected all attempts to enrich their traditional doctrine with ideas derived from Greek philosophy. Influenced by the Greek idea of justice, one school of innovators, the Mu'tazilites, dared to maintain that God was Infinite Justice, and not merely—as had hitherto been taught—Infinite Power and Infinite Love and Mercy. The orthodox banned this Hellenic novelty on the ground that since the requirements of absolute justice were expressed in terms derived from human reason, the products of human reason were being given an absolute value above the word of God. What is this but another version of Barth's veto on natural theology as setting human reason above divine revelation?

The theological veto, like the linguistic one, comes before us as part of a vast system which has undergone many changes. What is more, Barth has always taken the utmost liberties with language so that it is particularly hard not to fall into errors of mistranslation. Nevertheless, so far as I know, he has never retracted or modified his ban on natural theology—to so do would be to give up his whole position; and such a ban raises problems which it would be foolish to ignore.

§ 2. A common scepticism

The theological veto and the logical or linguistic veto may seem to be utterly opposed; for the first bans natural theology in the name of religion, and the second bans it in the name of science. Yet extremes often meet, and our two brands of positivist have at least a certain amount of negativism in common: they share equally in the scepticism which is characteristic of the modern world.

To Barth, as to Ayer, it is obvious that men can have no insight into religious principles and no knowledge of God either by unaided human reason or by any other human power. Both of them refuse to argue about natural theology, Ayer because such argument would be meaningless, and Barth because, besides being sinful, it would only distract attention from theology proper. According to him, real rejection of natural theology is not to be found in argument—this would merely be a fresh natural theology—but only in ‘a complete lack of interest’. It may be said of both of them that they couldn't care less.

It is more surprising to find that Barth shares Ayer's scepticism about every form of rational ethics, although it is not easy to be sure that he is consistent on this subject. He appears to recognize the fact ‘that our ability to distinguish between good and evil convicts us of our guilt’; and even if this ability, like all our human powers, is a gift of God, it is distinct from Christian faith. Yet if natural man can know what is good, and if what is good is commanded by God, then it would seem that he can know something, however dimly, of God's will. Such a supposition is ruled out from the start. Man is utterly corrupt in mind as well as in will; and all ethical systems are not merely impossible, but the fruit of man's fall and sin. Poor Brunner is rapped over the knuckles when he ventures to suggest that at least institutions like marriage and the State may—through the preserving grace of God—be known even to natural man as ordinances that are necessary and somehow sacred. To suggest this is condemned by Barth as ‘dogmatic’—it is trying to turn the commandments of God into the commandments of men.

It looks as if man is as powerless to distinguish between good and evil as he is to distinguish between religion and superstition or between God and the devil. The plight of philosophy and of religion alike seems to be desperate indeed.

§ 3. The rejection of reason

In so desperate a situation it is not surprising that any one to whom religion is of supreme importance should look for some desperate remedy. He cannot be satisfied with a theological liberalism which comes to terms with scepticism by emptying religion of all that may give offence—or perhaps by substituting a philosophy of shallow optimism and vague amiability for the tragic drama of creation, sin, salvation, and judgement. He will resent the claim of science to be the sole arbiter of truth; and if he identifies human reason with scientific thinking, he will be prepared in theology to abandon reason altogether. If we suppose Barth to have undergone some such experience, we may be able to understand him better; and the experience would be all the more intense because of the political and ecclesiastical crises that prevailed in Germany between the Wars.

The remedy that Barth found was to go back to the Reformers and ultimately to the Bible. He sees the history of theology since the Reformation as a process of gradual decay—a rebellion of reason against revelation. First of all there came, in place of the old orthodoxy, the ‘rational orthodoxy’ of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and this led gradually to the doctrines of the Enlightenment and to complete rationalism in religion. The great offence of Brunner is that after the summons to go back to the Reformers he is moving again towards a ‘rational orthodoxy’ which assigns some modest place to reason, and so is bound to start afresh a landslide into rationalism. Brunner does at least suppose that after the revelation has been received, all our dim thoughts about God and morality and social institutions will be illuminated and seen in their true perspective. This is a rational claim, but just because it is rational, it is rejected by Barth. If theology makes any concession to reason, it will have to retrace a course already followed and so to describe a complete circle.

In thought no circles are simply repeated, and Barth's theology, in spite of his heroic attempts to put the clock back, is different from that of the Reformers. They assumed the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures—a perfectly reasonable assumption at the time; and Calvin at least, a man as indiscriminately abused as he is little read, proceeded with complete rationality, not to say with a too relentless French logic, to develop his theology on that basis. As a result of modern criticism this foundation has been swept away. Outside the Roman Church all theologians of any standing have come to recognize that the Bible is not infallible, and Barth himself is too modern a man—perhaps too rational a man—not to accept the same view. Hence his theology, since it can appeal neither to human reason nor to an infallible authority, is bound to become personal and arbitrary: he may use Calvin's words, but they no longer have the same meaning. No doubt he still appeals, with supreme assurance if doubtful consistency, to the words of the Bible and the writings of the Reformers as witnesses to a divine revelation. But once the doctrine of verbal inspiration is abandoned, how can he distinguish between testimony which is worthy of trust and testimony which is not? If he does not judge by the principles of logical consistency and moral sanity and religious insight, must he not claim, and does he not in fact claim, that this distinction is revealed to him by God? If so, he seems to fall into a kind of personal dogmatism which is rare, at least in this explicit form. Yet it is further complicated by the doctrine—itself surely also a mark of modern scepticism—that revelation, although it is made by God, can never be known by man. Into this strange labyrinth of thought it is hardly possible to penetrate, and we must not forget that the doctrine has varied from time to time.

It would be out of place to consider here whether the theology of Barth is consistent with itself and with the teaching of the Bible. It is certainly full of paradoxes. Although he thinks little of history, his whole doctrine is based, not merely on the miracles and resurrection of Christ, but on the Fall of Adam considered as a historical fact; and every argument is supported by Biblical texts. Although God is hidden from mortals and the Bible is a veil which conceals rather than reveals, Barth can inform us in detail of divine events which are successive and apparently intermittent acts of God. Among these is the so-called ‘act of faith’, which for Him is divine and not human. This is an act of grace or revelation in which God knows man and saves him without any co-operation or acceptance or even awareness on his part; for man has no point of contact with the divine. Even the doctrine that God can be conceived, however inadequately, by means of an analogy with human relationships is swept aside. There is no resemblance between God and an earthly father. All we can believe is that God Himself has used the word ‘father’ to mean something that we can never know. It may be possible to descry some coherence in such paradoxes if we see them in the context of a whole system; but it is hard to believe that they do no violence to traditional Christian doctrine as well as to ordinary human reason.

In spite of all disclaimers it seems clear that in religion Barth demands a complete sacrifice of the intellect—a complete rejection of reason—except perhaps in the effort to keep theological thinking consistent with itself. This is sometimes watered down by his disciples: they suggest that he condemns only some arrogant and inappropriate ways of reasoning. If Barth were saying merely that empirical science can give no knowledge of God; or that thinking cannot prove God's existence and attributes; or that our thoughts of God cannot be adequate to the divine reality, but fall inevitably into contradictions; or that mere thinking can never be a substitute for religious experience—all such assertions would be reasonable enough, worthy of consideration, and even of acceptance, by reasonable men. At the very least they would be open to rational discussion. But Barth is saying very much more than this. What he is saying is that his theology is not open to rational discussion at all, and that if any one refuses to accept its presuppositions he is guilty of sinful pride. All man's powers are corrupted—his mind as well as his will—because of Adam's first sin. There is nothing whatever in man to which revelation can make an appeal. Stilt less is there anything in man which can presume to judge whether any revelation is genuine or not.

If this is not regarded as a complete rejection of reason in matters of religion, it is hard to imagine what would be. In denouncing natural theology Barth is forbidding us to apply human reason or human judgement to what he puts before us as the commands of God. We must no longer try to seek for truth: all we have to do is to render obedience.

§ 4. The closed circle

It is useless to argue with any one who declines all argument, but it may be worth while pointing out that Barth cannot be refuted so long as he remains within the circle of his own presuppositions.

There are times when we may be tempted to think that all philosophical arguments are ultimately circular. Thus if a philosopher holds that truth is what we know by intuition, he does so on the ground that he knows this by intuition. If another philosopher maintains that truth is what can be thought to cohere with the rest of our thinking, he does so on the ground that this can be thought to cohere with the rest of our thinking. If still another philosopher declares that truth is what works, he does so on the ground that this is what works. In all these cases we have a weighing machine which weighs itself—perhaps it would be better to say a measuring rod which measures itself: the alleged ground assumes what it is intended to prove. On the other hand, if it assumed some different ground, it would be a disproof of what it was intended to prove; and it looks as if only a circular proof could be valid. Certainly so long as a philosopher remains within his own closed circle or sticks consistently to his own assumptions, he cannot be refuted; for he can always retort that the refutation rests on suppositions which he rejects.

The same principle may apply to theological doctrines. If any one holds that the truth about God is only what is revealed by the Word of God, he may do so on the ground that this has been revealed to him by the Word of God. So long as he adheres consistently to this view his position is impregnable. Barth's position is more difficult because to him revelation is not revelation in any ordinary sense; but if we pass over this paradox, we can see why he is consistent in refusing to argue and why he is so angry with Brunner for attempting to put forward anything remotely resembling a rational defence. To argue at all is to appeal to human reason and so to abandon the whole position.

There is no doubt greater difficulty when we apply this circular method only to religious truth and not to all truth as such. The truth about God, which is known only by revelation, may be distinguished from the truth about nature (including man), which is known by our natural faculties; but it may not be easy—for example, in regard to Biblical history—to keep the two truths from clashing. Nevertheless, so long as we can maintain a complete separation and refuse to stray beyond our own magic circle, we can hope to be safe from the assaults of all the devils who seek to beguile us in the name of reason.

§ 5. The claims of reason

We are here concerned only with the principle involved in Barth's condemnation of natural theology—the principle, namely, that religion, which for him seems to be only his own religion, must never be exposed to independent rational thought or philosophical criticism.

This attitude is not new in the history of religion: Mr. Walzer's book, Galen on Jews and Christians, shows how it struck an educated Greek physician as early as the second century A.D. Yet it has not been the dominant view of Christian theology, whether Protestant or Catholic; and its extreme form is seldom found in theologians of Earth's eminence. It is utterly alien to the intellectual atmosphere of the modern world, and perhaps this is one reason why Barth goes to such extremes.

To many men to-day the only religion left—if it can be called a religion—is an absolute devotion to the truth. If they are open-minded enough to suppose that truth may be found in traditional religion, and not merely in science, they see many religions in the world and within these religions a great variety of sects. Many of these claim to possess divine revelation, some of them to possess the only divine revelation. Some may even declare that all other religions are merely a form of sin. What in these circumstances is a reasonable man to do?

It is clearly impossible for him to take one religion, even the one in which he has been brought up, as the norm of all the rest, like my Hindu friend with his sacred river. What can he do but ask himself, humbly and honestly, whether an alleged revelation is consistent with itself, consistent with the rest of knowledge, and consistent with the ideals of morality?

In asking these questions he is making use of human reason, and to do this, he is told, is sinful pride; for it is setting human reason above the revealed Word of God. He not unnaturally asks ‘How can I know that this is the revealed Word of God?’ The answer is ‘You can never know, nor can you do anything that will help you to know. You are completely blind and utterly corrupt. Revelation is the work of God alone, and He reveals himself to some, and denies himself to others, at His own good pleasure. You must abandon your pitiful search for truth. All you have to do is to obey’.

Utterances of this type may spring from some kind of special experience, whether prophetic or daemonic, and a reasonable man will be willing to enquire into the nature of that experience and to ask how it helps to justify religious belief. But this he is forbidden to do. Yet unless he does so, he can see no way of distinguishing between true religion and sheer superstition. A very little modesty might suggest to the prophet that to question the truth of his message is not the same thing as to sit in judgement upon God. Theological arrogance can also be a form of sinful pride.

If we are to abandon all rational criticism of our prophets, the result can only be fanaticism and chaos. We are admittedly not entitled to assume that revealed truth must accord with our ordinary beliefs, or even with our scientific beliefs; but we are entitled to assume that all truth must ultimately be consistent. Above all we must assume that revealed truth cannot be inconsistent with morality. When we are exhorted to worship a God who is portrayed as acting wickedly or commanding wickedness—and how often has this been done by false prophets!—we must insist that the alleged revelation has been inspired by some devilishness in human nature. Without at least this negative criterion, anything whatever can be accepted as revelation. Principles of this kind are required, not merely in theology, but in religious experience itself.

It may be replied that we must not approach religion with our human standards of morality or set them up in judgement upon God. If this means only that religious experience may give us a new insight into moral ideals, and even into a kind of holiness which is above morality, it may well be accepted. But if it is the doctrine sometimes known as ‘voluntarism’, it means that murder and cruelty and treachery would have been virtues if God had so ordained. Such a conception of God, so far from being divine, is less than human. If we cannot recognize goodness even when we see it, we have no means of judging whether any command is divine or devilish. And if the divine grace bestows on us no dim idea of holiness by which we may judge the revelations presented by men or books, or even by our own hearts, then we are at the mercy of fanatics and charlatans and may find ourselves worshipping at the shrine of Satan.

To apply reason to matters of religion is only to think as reasonably as we can about all the evidence there is. It does not exclude, but rather assumes, the possibility that this evidence is to be found, not in philosophical reflexion, but in religious experience and religious judgement. It does not even deny that religious faith comes only by divine grace—sola gratia. To those who believe in God reason as well as faith is a divine gift which affords no ground for vanity or conceit.

§ 6. Theological positivism

In certain respects the Theological Positivist resembles what we may call the ‘Legal Positivist’—the man who is concerned with the laws of a particular country and is indifferent or hostile to any philosophy of law. But the Legal Positivist does not ordinarily deny that there are laws in other countries than his own, nor does he attempt to make philosophical jurisprudence a crime. The theologian is less charitable than the jurist. Besides denouncing philosophical theology as a sin and sweeping aside all religions other than his own, he extends his condemnation within his own religion to other branches of the Church, and within his own branch to all who do not accept his doctrine and even to those who accept it on different grounds. All this in the name of humility!

If we may speak lightly on these serious matters, Barth is at first sight reminiscent of the Presbyterian elder who concluded his argument with a Jesuit by saying ‘We must agree to differ. We are both trying to serve the same God—you in your way, and I in His’. Yet Barth will not even admit that others are trying to serve the same God in their own mistaken way. In his Gifford Lectures, which are less inhumane than his controversial writings, he has to tell us that ‘the God of Mohammed is an idol like other idols’. His attitude to Emil Brunner recalls the venerable story—so venerable I almost blush to repeat it, but it is painfully apposite—of the old Scotswoman charged with believing that no one except herself and her minister could be saved. She replied ‘A whiles ha'e ma doots aboot the meenister’.

It may be out of place to suggest that a sense of humour might make men less ready to claim so exclusive an insight into the divine mysteries. But we may think that it is contrary to the spirit of religion, as well as to the spirit of philosophy, to condemn as sin and idolatry even the dim gropings of men who are seeking humbly for God. Martin Buber is surely nearer to the truth when he tells us that all God's names are hallowed. Perhaps a religion may still be known by its fruits; and the greatest of these is charity.

It is difficult not to be impatient with Barth as he is impatient with others, but we must try to see some of the dangers of which, from his point of view, he has reason to be afraid.

If natural theology seeks to formulate the principles of religion, it may find these most perfectly embodied in one religion, but it will be suspicious of the claim that they are never embodied, however imperfectly, in other religions; and it certainly cannot agree from the start that only one religion is to be considered. To a prophet like Barth such open-mindedness is not a virtue but a vice—a rebellion against the true God.

If he finds danger to religion even in the starting-point, he is bound to find far more in the method, of natural theology. All philosophy is obliged to follow the argument wherever it may lead, and it may turn out to be a doubtful ally, if not an open enemy. Natural theology may be less robust in health, and less bold in temper, than it used to be: it may no longer claim to possess scientific knowledge or to demonstrate the existence of God. Yet, weak as it is, it may still be strong enough to play the cuckoo in the nest and try to oust dogmatic theology altogether. It is fear of this—a fear not unsupported by history—that arouses Barth's anger and causes him to sound the alarm.

This encroachment on the part of philosophy may not be altogether wanton. If natural theology could determine what is essential to religion, any dogmatic theology might seem to be of secondary importance so far as it is concerned with something over and above the essence. This does not mean that a natural theology could ever be a substitute for religion—no theology can be that. But it is easy to see that the risk of such an encroachment must arouse Barth's hostility and distrust.

Even if such fears are considered groundless, it is certain that natural theology will condemn in the historical religions whatever it regards as incompatible with the principles of religion as such. One great benefit of philosophical thinking is that it helps to clear away some of the rubbish with which religion tends to be cluttered up. In this undertaking it is liable to error, like all the rest of our human thinking; but it cannot abandon its office because of the danger of making mistakes. Barth may be right in suspecting that a dispassionate natural theology will reject, not only his banishment of human reason from religious beliefs, but also the extreme view of sinful, corrupt, and fallen man that goes along with it. In this respect too his attitude is fully consistent within his own circle of thought.

In the last resort it is even possible that philosophical reflexion may end in agnosticism. If Barth himself is sceptical enough to think that it must lead to this, then it is easy to see why he has to place an absolute ban on every kind of natural theology. The most extreme prohibitions are those that spring from fear.

§ 7. The ban rejected

Barth's extremism is doubtless the result of his zeal for religion, a zeal in every way worthy of respect. His vast system of dogmatic theology can be criticized only by experts, and even the claim that it should be immune from external criticism is unassailable within his own circle of ideas. I have made no attempt to refute his irrational ban on natural theology since this could be done only by the very reason he condemns; but I hope I have not misinterpreted it or made it seem more irrational than it is.

It is a good principle to assume that experts generally know their own business best, but it is none the less surprising to find theologians who regard philosophy with a complete lack of interest.

The dogmatic theologian cannot avoid making statements, not only about God, but about the world and man and virtue and vice. Such statements must have a philosophical character even if they claim to be made on divine authority. In Christian theology at least, if not in all theology, they are expressed in the philosophical language of the past. Can it be a matter of indifference to the theologian if contemporary philosophers declare his language to be outmoded and his doctrines to be false or even meaningless? The philosophers reach far more of the intellectual youth of the country than he does and have through them, in the long run, an immense, though not obvious, influence on public opinion. If—to take the extreme example—the philosophy of the universities insists that all talk about God is mumbo-jumbo, can the theologian afford to sit back comfortably in his professorial chair and say that this is no concern of his? He may think that theism is a poor sort of religion or no sort of religion at all; but the plain fact is that if educated men and women regard theism as false or meaningless, not many of them are likely to listen to him. To abandon reason in the modern world is to let his case go by default. To declare war upon reason is to alienate all who care for truth and to hold open the door for the impostor and the zealot.

Complete scepticism is a poor support, and a dangerous ally, for religion. The marriage between religious experience and philosophical reflexion, though subject to misunderstandings and quarrels, has been too fruitful of blessings for any wise man to approve a divorce. And every natural theologian must insist that philosophical thinking about religion, and even about God, is a necessary and desirable human activity, which may, like any other, be pursued either with pride or with humility.

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