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Chapter VIII | Responses

§ 1. Responses

We have examined, if only in outline, the challenge offered by modern science to every form of religious belief. Our next task must be to consider, though once again only in the barest outline, some of the possible responses to this challenge.

An examination of such responses should not be confused with an attempt to answer the formidable case which has been presented, A satisfying answer, if it can be provided even for our own day and generation, will require a rare combination of philosophical and religious genius, and it certainly could not be given in one lecture, or even in a whole series of lectures. I have chosen the word ‘responses’ deliberately, for this covers both a mere reaction and an adequate answer as well as the whole range stretching from the one to the other.

The various responses to be examined need by no means be exclusive of one another: they may be combined in many different ways. Even considered by themselves each of them may take a great variety of forms.

The purely negative response I propose to pass over. Many honest thinkers abandon religion altogether and seek compensation in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, which alone can give some mastery over nature; and also in the practice and enjoyment of art, which can afford some of the emotional satisfaction formerly obtained from religious worship. If there is any truth in the account I have given of religion, this would involve a loss of spiritual health or wholeness. And if the negative response means also that we must reject human freedom and deny objective standards in morality, it is not one to be lightly approved.

§ 2. The way of the two compartments

One way of dealing with an obstacle or impediment is to pretend that it does not exist. This may avoid embarrassment, but it does not make for progress. In its extremer forms it might be described as the way of the ostrich, but this common aspersion on ostriches is said to be unwarranted. Perhaps we had better describe it as the way of the two compartments. We may keep one compartment of life for religion and another for science, and we may be careful to arrange that there should be no communicating door between.

This way is sometimes followed even by those who are undisturbed by intellectual difficulties. The late Sir Henry Jones used to tell a story about an old lady distinguished for her piety. She happened to meet one day a traveller who told her he had just returned from Jerusalem, and this took her completely aback. ‘Young man’, she said, ‘do you mean to tell me that there really is such a place?’ For her the world of religion, however precious, was a dream world which had no disturbing contact with reality. A more sceptical example of this attitude is that of the little girl who said, ‘Of course I know Santa Claus isn't real, but I don't want anybody to tell me so’.

Especially in moments of crisis or despair, men may continue to use the familiar language of devotion when it no longer represents their intellectual beliefs; but I am thinking rather of those who are unable to reconcile their religion with the rest of their knowledge and yet cling to both in the belief that both are good. They may be justified in doing so if they feel that these matters are too difficult for them and that they lack the intellectual equipment necessary to effect a reconciliation. In this there are many different grades, and even men who have abandoned most of their religion intellectually may be able at times to recapture their old feeling, and renew their former attitude, without troubling themselves too much about logical consistency. This latter experience finds its classical expression in the now hackneyed lines of Robert Browning which begin

‘Just when we are safest, there's a sunset touch,

A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,

A chorus-ending from Euripides,—…’

Bishop Blougram's attitude was complicated with self-interest and so with hypocrisy, but in itself the experience is not hypocritical; it is only the mirror of a divided mind.

The policy of the two compartments may offer some sort of temporary practical solution, but if exalted into a theory it merely re-states a problem which it has not solved. However comforting, and even necessary, it may be to the individual, it belongs to a religion which has a past rather than a future.

§ 3. The way of archaism

Another way of dealing with an obstacle is to re-trace one's steps. We may meet the crisis of religion and science by going backwards into the past. This might be called the policy of putting back the clock; but perhaps we had better borrow a term from Dean Inge and call it the way of archaism.

The way of archaism is not uncongenial to religion: it fits in with the conservatism of so much religious thought and practice. Priests, as Dr. Inge reminds us, continued to use stone knives long after iron had been discovered. The extreme of archaism is a reversion to the primitive, like the Nazi effort to revive the ritual of the ancient Germans. But its commonest form is the appeal to tradition, and ultimately the appeal to authority—an appeal characteristic of most, if not all, religions at certain stages of their development. We find this in Fundamentalism and in the attempts of Barth and his followers to get back to the Reformers and ultimately to the primitive Church. It is perhaps most conspicuous to-day in converts to Roman Catholicism.

The Roman Church does not fall into Barth's error of condemning natural theology and repudiating reason. On the contrary, it declares authoritatively that the natural light of reason can give us knowledge of God by means of philosophical argument and can establish the fact of divine revelation by historical proofs, notably by the record of miracles and prophecies. Yet when this result is achieved, the believer is commanded to accept without question, not only an inerrant Bible, but also a vast unwritten tradition, on the authority of an infallible Church. This is not an entirely closed circle to those who believe it can be approached, if not entered, by means of rational thought; but once within the circle there is no further scope for independent thinking. The doctrine of the divinity of Christ and that of the Immaculate Conception—and even the recent pronouncement that the Blessed Virgin Mary was taken up bodily into Heaven before death—have to be accepted with equal piety and veneration solely on the ground that they are vouched for by an infallible authority. There is no room left for argument except in order to support conclusions already assumed to be true.

The flight into the past, whatever form it may take, may be one way of not facing the impediments of the present, one way of carrying out the policy of the two compartments: we transport ourselves in imagination to a period when our present difficulties had not yet arisen. The dream world to which we retire for safety gains a certain measure of reality because something like it is supposed to have existed once; it has the charm of things that are old; it gives room for play to the aesthetic imagination; by shutting out the present it embodies the wholeness for which modern men seem to seek in vain; by offering a block belief or monolithic doctrine which has to be swallowed whole on authority it can free men from the painful responsibility of thinking and enable them to concentrate on the religious life; it can also remove from them the burden of difficult personal decisions; and in all these ways it can afford consolation to troubled, and even to sceptical, spirits, especially to those who find themselves unable to cope with the complexities, and perhaps the flatness, of the actual world.

Needless to say, it is only natural to cling to a past tradition and to derive inspiration from it—the most revolutionary movements make use, even if unconsciously, of what has gone before. Nevertheless we keep a tradition alive, not by accepting and repeating and elaborating what previous thinkers have thought, but by meeting our own problems in the same spirit as they met theirs. Religious thinkers in the past made assumptions which cannot reasonably be made to-day, and it is this which sets the modern problem. Mere archaism, intellectually considered, is an evasion of the problem. If it hardens into an abandonment of independent thought and an unquestioning submission to ecclesiastical authority, it is likely in the end to be as fatal to religious, as it is to intellectual, life.

§ 4. The way of absurdity

It is possible in religious matters, not merely to abandon thinking, but to spurn and deride it, to welcome paradox and to glorify inconsistency. This may be called the way of absurdity. It is another way, and a mad way, of pretending that obstacles do not exist. Once we take this path, we are free to do exactly as we like—to accept any religion or no religion as the whim seizes us.

Those who adopt this attitude surrender themselves frankly to unreason. Here is a terrible quotation from Martin Luther. ‘All the articles of our Christian belief are, when considered rationally, just as impossible, and mendacious and preposterous. Faith, however, is completely abreast of the situation. It grips reason by the throat, and strangles the beast’. On this Karl Barth makes the cryptic comment ‘He who can hear this, let him hear it; for it is the beginning and end of history’. It sounds more like the end of human sanity.

This rejection of reason finds its most elaborate modern expression in the voluminous writings of Kierkegaard, and his popularity to-day is a sign of the dangerous pass to which we have come—a mark of desperation and despair. He wrote, it is true, before the Darwinian theory and before the development of Biblical criticism; and he shows no interest in science or in the bearing of science on religion. The rationalism threatening religion he found principally—and perhaps not without justification—in the philosophy of Hegel and his followers. But what is most interesting in him, and also most modern, is that he denies any objective basis for religion: there must be a leap of faith into paradox and absurdity. His motto is ‘Credo quia absurdum’, and he carries it to the utmost length. Thus he exalts ‘the knights of the faith’ above the moral law; he believes in a ‘teleological suspension’ of ethics; and he becomes almost maudlin in his admiration for Abraham's willingness to offer up his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. This is expounded in the book called Fear and Trembling; and what makes it nauseating as a professedly religious work is that, as he himself has said, it is a ‘mystification’ which reproduces his own life. In other words, it is an account of his unhappy love affair with Regina Olsen, an account in which his own deplorable behaviour is supposed to be similar to that of Abraham. We may pity his unhappy and diseased temperament, but neurosis is a poor qualification for setting up as a religious guide. We should be particularly on our guard when the guide makes no pretence at objective thinking, which stands or falls by the argument independently of the personality of the thinker, but rests his case on the inwardness of his own personal experience. If ever a person was self-centred it was Kierkegaard: he hardly ever thinks of anyone but himself. Self-centredness is the very antithesis of religion; and if the paradox of faith is—as he says—a willingness ‘to do the terrible and to do it for its own sake’ (as well as for God's sake), then the less of this kind of faith we have the better.

It is not with the aid of such a leader that religion can be defended. Kierkegaard's thought may perhaps be winnowed into something of value for the philosophy of religion, since even his morbid vanity does not always overpower his natural shrewdness; and Gabriel Marcel has developed some of his ideas in a saner way. It is reasonable enough to recognize the limits of human knowledge and to insist that in the religious life there must be a decision or commitment which is not the result of discursive reasoning. But once we enter on the path of absurdity with a whole heart, there is no limit to the nonsense that may be talked. Fortunately or unfortunately, religion has no monopoly in absurdity, and it cannot be recommended on the ground that ‘humanly speaking, the knight of the faith is mad’.

§ 5. The way of the kernel and the husk

If religion is to retain its sanity, it has to adjust itself to the new knowledge. One way in which men begin this adjustment is by attempting to separate the core of religion from its accretions of myth and dogma and legalism, and indeed from all the aberrations of which we have already spoken. This may be called the way of the kernel and the husk. It means the giving up of something, even of much, that was precious to our fathers; but perhaps obstacles can be most easily surmounted by those who are content to travel light.

This way is often pursued within religion altogether apart from intellectual difficulties. In all ages and in all religions the greatest teachers have recalled men to simplicity, to the spirit as opposed to the letter. When this happens there is a great liberation of religious energy—a feeling of escape from the trivial to the serious, and from slavery to freedom. These movements within religion have often a moral, rather than an intellectual, inspiration, and so are positive as well as negative.

The modern movement towards simplicity in religion is partly moral, for much that used to be accepted without question is morally revolting to the men of to-day. But we are here concerned primarily with the theoretical difficulty of reconciling religious belief and scientific knowledge. This intellectual approach, though it may be pursued in a religious spirit and may indeed be more truly religious than a lazy acquiescence in traditional doctrines, is not in itself a source of religious inspiration. Its task is rather to cut away dead wood and so to secure space for the new shoots that may sprout in due course. But the cutting away may seem at first to be sheer loss.

The way of modernism, as this intellectual movement may be called, is directly opposed to the way of archaism, whose followers regard it with horror. They sometimes assert that a minimal theology must result in a minimal religion, but it is not obvious why this should be so. The teaching of Jesus in the synoptic gospels might be said to contain a minimum of theology, but a maximum of religion; and there are at least some men, perhaps even many, who, like the Quakers, find religion most compelling when it is reduced to its simplest terms—the love of God and of our neighbour. Modernism, even if at times it may seem to lack positive inspiration, is at least an attempt to meet, and not to evade, the intellectual difficulties of to-day. So far as it is a theology, it only constructs—like any other theology—a framework within which the religious spirit may manifest itself. So far as it is a religion, it too may have its saints.

On one point we should be under no illusion. Although it may get rid of some difficulties, modernism by itself is no answer to the scientific challenge since this affects the most essential of religious beliefs—belief in God and in objective standards of morality. Hence the unhappy modernist is assailed on two sides. He is charged with being half-hearted both in faith and in thought, with satisfying neither the religious nor the scientific spirit. He may be said to make the worst of both worlds. All this goes to show that from an intellectual point of view modernism is incomplete without a philosophy of religion. Even the central core of religion can no longer be accepted as a matter of general agreement.

In spite of what has been said about the attraction of a simple religion it may be urged that besides doctrine and an effort to lead the good life in the service of God and man, there is need of a symbolism, a myth, a ritual. These may be necessary to satisfy the primitive side of our nature, to kindle our imagination, to move our hearts. Yet they must develop gradually, and they are most effective when hallowed by tradition. Is there not a danger that modernism may leave only the thin ghost of a religion which will quickly lose its influence among ordinary men?

§ 6. The way of allegory

There is admittedly a danger that a religion which is, so to speak, disembodied may be too rarefied for ordinary men: it may become more like a philosophy, and this is not an adequate substitute. Ultimately the religious spirit must be left to evolve its own symbolism and ritual, but where it is not strong enough to do so, men have always tried to meet this situation by what may be called the way of allegory: they have interpreted what traditionally seemed to be plain statements of fact as myths or parables which reveal a higher truth.

Those who adopt this course are commonly attacked, or even despised, both by the upholders of orthodoxy and by those who wish to sweep all religion away. They are spurned as half-hearted and dishonest triflers by men who, for quite different reasons, unite in insisting that religious statements must be taken with absolute literalness. Thus from the religious point of view Theodore of Mopsuestia assailed Origen long ago for teaching that Adam was not Adam and paradise was not paradise and the snake was not a snake. Yet the allegorical method is far from being uncongenial to religion: it is practised at all levels from the simple use of parable to the most elaborate methods of exegesis—witness, for example, the traditional interpretations of the Song of Solomon; and it becomes extravagant only in the stage of decline, as when the old Greek religion was near the point of death. There are few who would support Theodore against Origen to-day, and even Karl Barth once declared that ‘it did not matter whether the serpent spoke, but what he said’.

The way of allegory was employed by Immanuel Kant, perhaps more for the benefit of his pupils than of himself. He believed that the historical element in religion served only ‘to illustrate and not to demonstrate’ the rational truths of religion and morality: its value lay in the fact that it could be interpreted as revealing these higher truths. This is certainly a fundamental departure from the traditional beliefs of Christianity, and his attempt to preserve Christian doctrine in an altered form was as unwelcome to an orthodox thinker like the Prussian archbishop Borowski as it was to a ‘convinced heathen’ like Goethe. It is harsh and unjustifiable to condemn as dishonest those who seek in this way to maintain continuity with the religion of their fathers or to recover the purity of a faith which they think has been corrupted; but there must be a limit to the possibility of preserving an ancient symbolism or ritual or doctrine while reading into it a different meaning. This is a transitional method, and there may come a time when it can no longer be followed with an undivided mind and heart. In the words of the Moslem philosopher Al Ghazali, ‘Whenever a man knows that the glass of his traditional faith is broken, that is a breaking that cannot be mended, and a separating that cannot be united by any sewing or putting together, except it be melted in the fire and given another new form’. Nevertheless until breaking-point is reached, there may be effective continuity in a faith which finds very different intellectual interpretations at different stages of its development.

§ 7. The way of religious experience

It may be thought that the account so far given of responses to the modern challenge is altogether too intellectual. Must not the only satisfactory response be based on the fact of religious, and perhaps of mystical, experience? Only if we fall back on experience can the scientist be met on his own ground.

The position unfortunately is not quite so simple as that.

Naturally enough, the religious man must respond by continuing to live the religious life. He may also reasonably claim that only those who attempt humbly to do so are likely to be granted the vision of God. Furthermore, religious experience is actually felt, not only as a contact with ultimate reality, but as a communion, or even union, with God, a communion which is not mere knowledge, but is also love. Perhaps it may even be felt, not as one-sided, but as mutual love. This is a tremendous, and indeed a staggering, claim; yet without something of this character religion—so far as it is more than morality—is reduced, at the worst to an emotional indulgence, and at the best to a form of art, perhaps to a form of art which, after the fashion of Coué, directly influences conduct by means of the imagination. The religious man may feel that his experience is its own guarantee, and that for him it is impossible to doubt the reality that is experienced. This may be sufficient for him in practice; but unless he is prepared to think further, he has not escaped from the way of the two compartments and is still in need of intellectual defence against criticism, especially if his experience is to be used for the persuasion of others.

There is a further point. Religious experience may be in fact the main reason why men continue to believe in God, but it may be doubted whether they have always recognized this. In the past such experience developed against a hard background of theological doctrine and took much of its colour from this background. Even a mystic like St. Teresa would, I think, have been surprised to be told that the ground of faith was religious or mystical experience. She always displayed a proper respect for learned men—perhaps not without a tinge of irony—and was ready to withdraw at the behest of the Church anything that she had said. The divine favours specially granted to a few chosen spirits she would have regarded as a strong confirmation, rather than as the very foundation, of religious belief.

Even from a religious point of view we must ask how far religious experience claims to be knowledge of God. It is a ground for faith; but faith is not knowledge, and the religious consciousness itself seems to shrink from any claim to know God as He is. Nor is the position altered if we appeal to the mystics. It would be unreasonable to doubt that some favoured men and women have experienced in a kind of trance or ecstasy what they feel with absolute assurance to be union with God. On this evidence some are prepared to say with Mr. Aldous Huxley that in these experiences ‘the God who is both immanent and transcendent, personal and more than personal, may reveal Himself… in his fullness’. This is too hurried, even if we set aside a possibility suggested by our account of the negative way—the possibility that the mystic union may be a sinking back into that undifferentiated continuum which is supposed by some Eastern philosophies to be the ultimate reality. The mystics themselves are full of warnings that any claim to knowledge of God is subject to the severest limitations. Let me quote again from St. John of the Cross. ‘One of the greatest favours bestowed on the soul transiently in this life is to enable it to see so distinctly and to feel so profoundly that it cannot comprehend God at all. These souls are herein somewhat like the saints in heaven, where they who know Him most perfectly perceive most clearly that He is infinitely incomprehensible; for those who have the less clear vision do not perceive so clearly as do those others how greatly He transcends their vision’.

Religious and mystical experiences must be of the utmost importance for any philosophy of religion. Yet it is abundantly clear that they are in need of philosophical interpretation and defence if they are to satisfy the mind as well as the heart.

§ 8. The way of psychical research

If our intellectual difficulties arise mainly from empirical science, it may be thought that we must seek the main, if not the sole, defence of religion from empirical science itself—namely, from that branch of it known as psychical research. Here surely we shall be able to meet the natural scientist on his own ground.

This view has been advocated by thinkers so eminently worthy of respect that it cannot be passed over even if we feel, as I do, some qualms about it—possibly as the result of what Professor Broad calls ‘unconscious resistance’. It is held, for example, by Professor Price, and he has rather ambiguous support from Professor Broad, whose sympathy with religion is less conspicuous.

The subject of psychical research suffers from its relation to spiritualism and to what is known as ‘the occult’—that hideous breeding-ground of credulity and fraud—but we should not allow this to prejudice us against it. Having studied the evidence, Professor Price considers that telepathy and clairvoyance have been scientifically established. In telepathy—I quote his words—‘one mind exercises a direct influence upon another mind, without any known physical intermediary’; and in clairvoyance ‘a mind has a veridical “impression” of an object or event (often a distant one) without making use of physical sense-organs’. From this he proceeds to argue that in these occurrences ‘the brain apparently plays no part’, and consequently that psychical research ‘has already in principle demolished the materialistic theory of human personality’. Needless to say, he does not propose to base religion on such experiences, but he considers that these discoveries go some way towards making tenable a belief in personal immortality and so in divine justice. These two beliefs he regards as essential to religion.

We may have the utmost sympathy with this attitude, and yet doubt whether the evidence will bear the weight of all his conclusions. As these psychical events have happened, so far as we know, only to living beings possessed of a brain, it is hard to see why they should be any more independent of the brain than is, for example, the solution of a mathematical or philosophical problem. The evidence seems only to suggest possibilities which scientists may be too ready to exclude. Every encouragement should be given to further enquiry; and if our research produces genuinely scientific results, we are entitled to make use of these results as a corroboration for philosophical theories of the relation between mind and matter. So far we may agree with Professor Price. But the religious man must hesitate to let his case stand or fall by reference to facts which are admittedly not open to all observers and which may be susceptible of different theoretical explanations. Unless religion can maintain itself even on the supposition that there is complete correlation between mental and cerebral processes, it is putting itself at the mercy of further scientific discoveries.

In recent years psychical research has increased its scientific respectability by moving into the laboratory and taking the name of ‘para-psychology’. In his book, The Reach of the Mind, Professor Rhine expounds, with rather less subtlety, a doctrine not unlike that of Professor Price; and he supports it with a careful account of the experimental evidence for extra-sensory perception (ESP) and psycho-kinesis (PK). He experiments mainly with dice or cards, and he claims to have demonstrated, not only that some individuals can foretell the fall of dice more often than the theory of mathematical chances would warrant, but also—more surprisingly—that they can, by willing, influence the fall of dice to an extent that is mathematically significant in the same sense. All this is extremely interesting, and, as he himself recognizes, it opens up the possibility that telepathy, as tested in the laboratory, may be reduced to precognition of the record that has subsequently to be written down by the sender of the telepathic message. What concerns us is his view that here at last we get experimental proof that man is something more than a merely physical being. I should have thought that every scientific experiment, and indeed that every act of thinking, was already a proof that man was more than a physical being. The failure to consider this possibility illustrates the modern tendency so to concentrate on the observed experiment that the mental activity of the experimenter is entirely overlooked.

We ought not to make light of these recent attempts to support religion by the aid of scientific experiment, but it is necessary to get them into perspective. Professor Broad tells us that psychical research offers the religious man the only possible gift-horse in the field of the sciences; but he adds the warning that it may turn out to be a Trojan horse. In spite of the ambiguous character of the animal he would, he says, hesitate, if he were a religious man, to look it quite so superciliously in the mouth as the leaders of religion habitually do. Superciliousness is certainly unbecoming to leaders of religion; but the mouth of a possibly Trojan horse should be scanned with the most anxious care—especially if we are invited to put our shirt on it.

Professor Broad's warning should be taken seriously. We cannot let our philosophy, and still less our religion, turn on empirical evidence which is dubious in character and limited in scope. Such evidence can be too easily upset or at least re-interpreted. We may look to it for corroboration, but we cannot make it the foundation of a philosophical or theological system without the risk that at any moment the whole structure may topple about our ears.

§ 9. The need for philosophy

Religion, as I think Professor Price would agree, must stand or fall by the authenticity of religious experience; but if, like a crab, it is to grow a hard shell adequate at least for a time, it must look to a philosophy which is broadly based and is ready to take into account all the evidence there is.

This appears to be the main conclusion which emerges from the survey of the various possible responses. It will be unwelcome to those who deny to philosophy the right, or even the power, to deal with ultimate questions; but most of those who take this view are not concerned with religion, and the few who are so concerned must be left to find their own way out of the present difficulties. Our conclusion is not incompatible with most of the responses that have been considered—not even with the way of the two compartments, unless this is adopted as a permanent principle and not merely as a temporary device. There is only one response to which it is diametrically opposed. Between the way of philosophy, or of sanity, and the bad, mad way I have called the way of absurdity there can only be war to the knife.

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