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Part II. Reason and Faith: The Lutheran Succession

Chapter VIII: Reason and Revelation for Karl Barth


1 In Karl Barth we reach the culmination of the course of Protestant thought that began with Luther and advanced through Kierkegaard and Brunner. He developed this type of theology with a thoroughness and massiveness that seem unlikely to be surpassed by any later theologian. His many-volumed Dogmatik is one of the most intimidating of theological works, and if his own comment is true that no critic should presume to criticise him without reading him in his entirety, I can only admit the presumptuousness of the pages that follow. I shall not be concerned, however, with the details of his Scriptural interpretation or with the slight modifications of view that took place over the years; my interest will be confined to his teaching on the relation of reason to revelation. This central teaching reappears in all his works, but it will be studied chiefly as it is presented in his Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen on The Knowledge of God and the Service of God.

That Barth should have been invited or should have consented to give these lectures is something of an anomaly. He began by citing the specification in Lord Gifford's will that the lectures were designed for the ‘promoting, advancing, teaching and diffusing’ of natural theology, ‘without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation’. Regarding such natural theology Barth said at once, and with disarming candour, ‘I do not see how it is possible for it to exist. I am convinced that so far as it has existed and still exists, it owes its existence to a radical error.’ The service he proposed to render to natural theology was to stimulate such life as might be left in it by stating the case for its mortal enemy, ‘that totally different theology by which “natural theology” lives, in so far as it must affirm what the other denies and deny what the other affirms’. In the face of all the projectionists who, like Freud and Feuerbach, would make religious ‘knowledge’ an imaginative fulfilling of need, of all the pragmatists who, like Dewey, would make it merely a means to human betterment, of all the rationalists who, like Hegel, would make it philosophy, half grown up, of all the psychologists, who, with Schleiermacher and Ritschl, would make it essentially a matter of feeling, Barth proclaimed a full-fledged return to the theology of the Reformation, in which God is set over against the world as ‘wholly other’, known indeed to faith, but unknowable, unapproachable, and unimaginable by any natural faculties.

It is this doctrine of God as the ‘wholly other’, and discontinuous with us in nature, as closed to our thoughts and alien even to our ideals, that is the arresting note in Barth's teaching; and we shall turn to it in a moment for special attention. But first let us see its place in the wider setting of his theology.

2 That theology has been rightly described as neo-orthodox. Orthodoxy for Barth, as for the Roman Catholic, is a serious matter; to him the notion is frivolous that each of us can go to the Bible and pick out from it what happens to suit his own taste or temperament. In his early days he saw this happening among German liberals. Even Harnack, who was his teacher and who made so much of objectivity, looked at the gospel through his own glasses; he saw Jesus as a social reformer in advance of his time, not as incarnate Deity. Now if Jesus is not incarnate Deity, no doubt the liberal approach to him is right. He will then present the tragic figure of a poet and prophet trying to make the world over by gentleness, and subject to many illusions. If this is what he was, the long ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ by researchers bent on describing, interpreting, and amending him will be in order.

But this is not the orthodox view of Jesus. The orthodox view is that he spoke as never man spoke because he was more than man, because he was the embodiment on earth of an eternal, all-knowing, all powerful, infinite Creator. This Creator made man and enjoined him to obey and glorify his maker. The first man broke this command. In doing so he brought sin into the world. This sin corrupted not only his own nature but also the whole race of his descendants, who therefore stand utterly condemned in God's sight. Only an infinite sacrifice could atone for their guilt. This sacrifice was in fact made when the second person of the Trinity, himself infinite in power and goodness, offered himself as a ransom to the first person, and though living a sinless life on earth, subjected himself to a cruel death. Because of this sacrifice, God has made available to certain men, not through any effort or merit on their part but through his mercy alone, the gift of grace, which both averts from them the wrath which is their due, and transforms them inwardly so that they become capable again of faith and righteousness.

To ears accustomed to liberal scepticism or rationalistic philosophising, Barth admitted that such language sounded archaic. But it is more important to note, he thought, that according to the Reformation, according to the church, and according to the Bible, it happens to be true. And if it is true, the work of the Christian is clearly appointed. It is not to hammer out a theology with the crude tools of his own reason, or to exalt the whisperings of his own conscience into the laws of the good life. It is his business, if God has really spoken, to be silent and listen. And the business of the church is not to wrangle with the philosophers or to compete with politicians and economists in social reform. In so doing it would be taking a feeble and febrile stand; it would be throwing away Excalibur and doing battle with an absurd tin sword. The true line for the church is to stand up and say, as the prophets did, ‘Thus saith the Lord’. This bugle note of uncompromising confidence and courage rallied behind Barth's leadership many thousands of persons who were feeling faint of heart about the Christian prospect in the modern world.

For Barth, then, there is one fact that stands out in monolithic majesty on the plain of human history: God spoke to man in Christ. Of that revelation we have a witness in the Bible and a further witness whenever God in his mercy gives us grace to believe. It is upon this fact of revelation, therefore, that we must fix our eye. How does Barth know when it is occurring and what it says?


3 He gives us his answer through a series of denials. Revelation has been thought to occur in many areas of experience. Many poets, scientists, and philosophers have professed to find it in nature. Wordsworth found it in the light of setting suns; Kepler held that in his astronomy he was ‘thinking God's thoughts after him’, and the evolutionist John Fiske wrote a book charting the passage Through Nature to God. But when Emil Brunner ventured to suggest that there was some truth in this idea, Barth answered, ‘Nein’; natural theology ‘can only be becoming to the theology and church of Antichrist’.1 Except in His Word, God is never for us in the world, that is to say in our space and time.’ There is no road from science to faith.

Is there any road from philosophy to faith? Many of Barth's distinuished predecessors in the Gifford lectureship, for example the brothers Caird, held that there was, and that our thought of the world, so far as it becomes coherent and comprehensive, is in rapport with a reason immanent in nature; reason rightly used is indeed one with revelation. Barth will have none of this. God is and must remain the unknowable ‘wholly other’. As Gogarten puts it, he is ‘the Unknown by our knowing, the Unconceived by our concepts, the Measureless for our measures, the Inexperienceable for our experience’.2 This does not mean that we have no knowledge of God of any kind, for faith is itself the highest knowledge. But having said this, Barth adds at once that this knowledge ‘differs completely from anything else which man calls knowledge, not only in its content, but in its mode of origin and form as well’.3 ‘Further, it is forced down my throat that the Dogmatic theologian is under the obligation to “justify” himself in his utterances before philosophy. To that my answer is likewise, No.… It cannot be otherwise than that Dogmatics runs counter to every philosophy no matter what form it may have assumed.’4 The very attempt to know God by thought is impiety, since it is an attempt to catch the infinite in the net of our own categories. Though Barth dislikes and distrusts philosophy, he did in his youth study Kant's first critique. For his own position it was a happy choice, since Kant confirmed him in the view that reason is made for nature and cannot penetrate beyond it.

4 Kant thought, however, that in the experience of duty we did manage to go beyond it, and moralists of such different stripe as Butler, Newman, and Martineau have agreed that in some sense the voice of God is to be heard in the voice of conscience. Would Barth agree? His answer again is an emphatic No. For there is really no health in us, and conscience, as an organ in the natural man, is infected by his disease.

Barth is scornful of ‘poor present-day man with his utilitarian notions’5 and the ‘happy gentleman of culture who today drives up so briskly in his little car of progress and so cheerfully displays the pennants of his various ideals.…’6 He praises the Scottish confession because it ‘is opposed, and rightly so, to all talk about the goodness of the Christian life’.7 There is something startling about a theologian belittling goodness itself, but Barth does not flinch from it if the goodness is merely human goodness. ‘In the Christian life we are not concerned with our becoming Christian personalities.… All that… can be very fine, but yet it looks as if there were already in process here another instance of the idolatry in which man wishes really to make his own achievements the basis of his confidence,’8 and, for Barth, man's attempt to justify himself by works is a sin against the Holy Spirit. Between God's goodness and man's there is a deep gulf, and it is misleading to say of the sinlessness of Christ that it is an example of what we mean by moral goodness. Canon Quick complains of Barth's speaking ‘as though it were treason to the Christian faith to seek to commend the truth of the Christian revelation to non-Christians on the ground that the character of Jesus is surpassingly good and beautiful, and that His life reveals thereby the beauty and goodness of the Godhead.’9 One would expect Barth to reject the social interpretation of the gospel, but he seems at times to go further and to disparage the very idea of service; ‘speaking generally,’ he says, ‘the Church has not to be at the service of mankind’. It has higher work to do.


5 If we are not to look for revelation in any of these quarters, shall we find it perhaps in the Bible? No again, if that means that we can hope to find it by analysis or interpretation or any other process of sifting meanings. God does speak through the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, but their meaning is not what a moralist could arrive at from reflection on natural rights or through listening to his own conscience.10 Revelation comes also and comes indeed supremely, through the Christ portrayed in the New Testament. But Barth is quite ready, as Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists are not, to let the critics go ahead with their work of dissecting and reconstructing this portrait, since it is idle in any case to look for revelation in it. God is not revealed to us in the character or mind of Jesus, in anything he did or said or was, so far as this is apprehended with our natural gifts; the Jesus of history is not the Christ; God dwelt in him only incognito. ‘The Bible is God's Word…’ says Barth, ‘so far as God speaks through it’. But we shall never find the points at which he is speaking through it by raising questions of authenticity or reasonableness. This is merely one more attempt to appraise divinity by human tests.

6 Baffled in the search for revelation in any of these quarters, suppose we take the last step open to us. If we look in vain for revelation in nature, in thought, in conscience, in the Bible, in the Jesus of history, may we not find it in immediate religious experience? There is of course a vast volume of Christian tradition to the effect that we may. The mystical vision, the Quaker inner light, the Methodist's conversion, the common experiences of faith and prayer have been felt by millions of persons, both simple and sophisticated, to give them contact at first hand with the divine. May we agree with any of them? Barth's answer is not only uncompromising but startling. He would ask first whether these experiences are genuinely human experiences, the sort, for example, that James described in the Varieties, that psychologists are able to connect causally with adolescence or sex or emotional need, that are reported in other religions as well as the Christian. If the answer is, Yes, they are experiences of this kind, then Barth replies that to take them as revelations is impious. The mystic's claim to union with God is blasphemous. God is never present in the human heart, and it is idolatrous to suppose that he is.11 Prayer, if a seeking for God's presence, is presumptuous and separates us from him; Barth notes ‘How profane a world this world of prayer is.…’12 Religion as such is not spared; ‘the Church does not take the slightest interest in religion…’;13 religion is a ‘misfortune which takes fatal hold upon some men’;14 ‘the vast pandemonium of human piety’ is dangerous to the God-seeking soul.15 ‘Religion must die. In God we are rid of it.’16 Thus natural religion in its most intimate experiences of piety, prayer, and mystical exaltation is set down as dangerous delusion.

7 Now if revelation is not to be found in any of these areas or experiences, what sort of message does it have for us, and how are we to recognise this when it comes?


To the first question, what does it say? Barth replies that no answer is possible of the kind that presumably is wanted. If one is asking for a set of commands, ideas, or propositions that can be understood, put into words, and communicated to other people, one is asking for an impossible translation of the ‘wholly other’ into human terms. A faithful interpreter writes: ‘When one has stated what Father, Son, and Spirit in God mean, says Barth, one must continue and add that one has said nothing. The mysterium trinitatis remains a mystery.’17 ‘To know this God in His dealings… means necessarily to know God's free mercy, the most incomprehensible of all miracles.’18 To call him wise or good or powerful or just or even gracious, in our senses of these words, to say that he has qualities analogous to these in any sense that we can understand, to draw inferences about him that are based on these concepts, all these are alike and in principle illegitimate. In talking about revelation, we are using a denotation without any clear connotation. Barth felt free to call it by many names, since none of them is descriptive; in referring to revelation, the terms ‘God’, ‘Christ’, ‘grace’, ‘faith’, ‘the Son’, ‘the Father’, the ‘mercy’ or ‘love’ or ‘justice’ of God all mean the same thing; even ‘the service of God’ and ‘the knowledge of God’, since both mean simply the indwelling God himself, again mean the same thing. To the quesion what is revealed? Barth's answer is as succinct as one could wish: ‘Gott selbst, Gott allein!’

To the other question, how we recognise revelation when it comes, Barth again admits that he has no answer that will satisfy. What is wanted, no doubt, is a criterion or set of marks by which an authentic revelation can be distinguished from a pseudo-revelation. And there are no such marks. How then is my groping search to proceed? How am I to recognise the boon when it presents itself? The truth is, says Barth, that I cannot recognise it. To say that I could would be equivalent to saying that the finite can recognise the infinite, that the temporal, while still sunk in time, can view eternity, that corruption as such can put on incorruption. No, man as he is cannot respond to or even identify revelation. It is only God in him that can rise to so high an occasion and interpret what the testimony for revelation really means. ‘How could revelation ever be recognised as the divine content of that testimony except through revelation? But so to recognise revelation through revelation means to recognise it by revelation awakening one's faith.’19 ‘It is faith which knows God as a child knows its father,’20 and faith is an exercise of no human faculty; ‘the man who really has faith will never consider his faith as a realisation or manifestation of his religious life, but will on the contrary admit that his capacity for religion would in itself have led him to the gods and idols, but by no means to Jesus Christ.’21 Deep can speak only to deep. In this respect the achievement of an understanding faith is like the achievement of genuine goodness; neither is really an achievement. We must admit that ‘what we wish, will and strive after to-day, i.e. what we are to-day, is simply our sin…’;22 on the other hand, ‘all our works which proceed from faith will be good works,’ and only these.23 The faith that sees and the goodness that embodies that faith are alike the work of Deity, who in his inscrutable grace descends at times into human life.

Barth's view of revelation, though developed through many thousand pages, is thus in essence simple. There is no road from man to God, no way of gaining knowledge or union with God through human experience or through reflection on that experience. There is a road from God to man. That road was taken in the incarnation. It is taken now in unpredictable times and places by divine grace, but since the revelation comes from a ‘wholly other’, discontinuous and incommensurable with all our powers, both that which speaks in us and that which hears it transcend the human level.


8 What are we to say of this teaching? Two things we must grant to it without reservation. First, it achieved a dramatic and unexpected turning of the tables on rationalism and liberalism. In the first two decades of the century, as noted in the last chapter, liberalism seemed secure in its ascendancy. I recall hearing an eminent theologian say, ‘One thing is now clear: liberalism is dead.’ I suspect that he was mistaken, but there can be no doubt that an astonishing change of theological climate occurred in the first half of the century, and that this change was due to Barth more than to any other man.

I think too that, whether we are persuaded by it or not, we must admire the adroitness of Barth's strategy. He chose his own ground, and for the most part refused to meet his critics on ground where he would be at a disadvantage. He was not a philosopher and he knew it. If he had attempted a systematic argumentative defence of his position, he might have been manoeuvred into logical disaster by rationalist tacticians; it is obviously dangerous for anyone advancing an irrationalist thesis to defend his case with rationalist weapons. Barth may have learned this from considering the way in which conservatives met the great upsurge of liberal rationalism under Hegel and Strauss in the last century. Kierkegaard met it with a shrewd denial that religious faith was a rational matter at all, and Kierkegaard's voluble ghost is still very much alive in our divinity school quadrangles. Mansel, with a greater logical skill than that of either Kierkegaard or Barth, attempted to defend a similar view of revelation by argument. His book had the misfortune to fall under the eye of John Stuart Mill, and for once a book got reviewed. Mansel was crushed, apparently beyond revival. Barth has prudently reverted to the line of Kierkegaard. He says to the philosophers bluntly: I decline to recognise your jurisdiction; my appeal is to a court in which your logic-chopping has no standing.


9 Our first step in examining him may well be to ask whether he is entitled to this appeal. Philosophers can admit an appeal from logic-chopping, but not from logic, and when Barth declines to be judged by the standards they employ, we must ask rather more precisely what he means. He might mean any one of three things. He might mean, first, that the ultimate truth about God and the world is so far beyond us that any conceptions of it arrived at with our present powers are bound to fall short. Or he might go beyond this and mean, secondly, that in the picture of the world which we are now bound to accept, taking both revealed and natural knowledge into account, there are genuine contradictions, but that these are rather incident to the process of search than indicative of irrationality in the world. Or he might mean, thirdly, that they do indicate just this, and that we must therefore say that the very attempt to grasp ultimate truth by reason is misguided, since it is bound to be flouted in the end by the object it is trying to understand. Which of these things is Barth saying?

He is obviously saying at least the first, and here we may surely agree with him. The ideas we form of the world always grow out of our experience; that experience is severely limited by the range of our senses, by our flickering attention and vagrant reflection, and indeed on every side by our imperfectly evolved powers of mind. If rationalism implies the claim that our present ideas, even at their best, on the nature of matter, time, life, mind, personality, or value, or on the place of any of these in the universe as a whole, are adequate and final, then we may agree with Barth that rationalism is absurd. Unfortunately, the agreement is not very significant, since this is not a kind of rationalism that any responsible rationalist would avow.


10 Does Barth then also take the second position, that there are contradictions in our knowledge, though not in reality? He has not discussed, so far as I know, the antinomies in natural knowledge alleged by Zeno, Kant, and Russell. But he has held that revelation presents us with insights which, when placed side by side with those of natural knowledge, result in contradictions from which we cannot escape. That revelation is to be considered a kind of knowledge is attested by his entitling one of his books The Knowledge of God. And he would not deny that science at its best is knowledge. But when we try to put these into one whole, it breaks into contradictory pieces. Barth perhaps takes less delight in dwelling on these contradictions, which he would rather call paradoxes, than Tertullian and Kierkegaard did, and he has never, so far as I know, set them out in formal fashion. But they are there in plenty. For the sake of clearness, I will list a few of them.

First there are the contradictions about original sin. No man can be justly condemned for the deeds of another, but nevertheless man stands under just condemnation for the sin of Adam. Sin is distorted or perverted will; but original sin somehow infects us before we can use our wills.

Secondly, there are the contradictions about God's justice. God is perfectly just; yet we have to ascribe to him acts that appear plainly to be unjust. He has withheld his revelation from some persons and nations and granted it to others in a manner that, for all we can see, is arbitrary; he has remitted punishment that is due to certain men because he is appeased by the sacrifice of another, and has inflicted his punishment or displeasure on persons who, to the best of our knowledge, are innocent.

Thirdly, there is the great nest of contradictions about the incarnation. God really became man. But an omniscient mind cannot also be a mind that is limited and growing. A mind with no evil in it cannot be tempted as we are. A mind that is really eternal cannot be temporal for thirty-three years. A mind that is absolute, in the sense that it is free from finite conditions, cannot be personal, in the sense that it knows, feels, and wills what is other than itself. A God who is pure goodness cannot also, in becoming man, share man's corruptness and sinfulness. But Barth insists that he does: ‘The completeness of God's humiliation… lies in His taking upon Himself as man everything which man's rebellion against Him has made inevitable—suffering and death but also perdition and hell.…’24 To this passage Barth adds in a characteristic note: ‘I have received a letter, the writer of which maintains that it is both impossible and incomprehensible that God should suffer death and perdition. To this I would reply that this is the sacrifice of which the Bible speaks.’ The person of Jesus Christ is to Barth what it was to Kierkegaard, who regarded it as something logically incredible against which ‘reason beats her brow till the blood comes’.

Fourthly, our attainment of goodness is unintelligible. We meditate, pray, resolve, and struggle, all to no avail; we are still in God's sight repellent. We are helpless to secure his grace; Barth insists that we cannot even co-operate with him in securing it; such efforts are tainted with evil. When we do attain to goodness, it is not we who attain it but God in us, who, for no reason that our minds can hope to understand, has chosen to descend into us and act through us.

Fifthly, we are told that with God all things are possible. If so, it was possible for him to create a world in which the vast mass of suffering that is morally pointless—the pain and misery of animals, the cancer and blindness of little children, the humiliations of senility and insanity—were avoided. These are not the products of free will; they are inflictions from without, and apparently therefore inflictions of the Creator himself. If you admit that, you deny his goodness; if you say he could not have done otherwise, you deny that with him all things are possible.


11 Here is a long series of contradictions which it would be easy to extend. Barth would say that in some sense we know both sides of each. What can he mean by this? Does he mean that they are temporary confusions that will be cleared up as knowledge increases, or does he mean that the world is really like this, a place of ultimate chaos and incoherence?

Some readers have taken him in the former and less radical sense. Let us see what this would involve. When a contradiction is at issue, there is only one way in which consistency can be saved: if both propositions are to be retained as true, the meaning of one or other (if not both) must be altered; both cannot be taken as true in their contradictory senses. Now the contradictions we have listed are, without exception, cases in which on the one side stands an insight of the natural man and on the other an insight alleged to have come by revelation. If reconciliation is to be achieved, either the revealed or the natural meaning must, as it stands, be given up.

Suppose first that we give up the revealed meaning. This is the line that naturalists would take. But since it would amount to denying revealed truth, Barth would not consider it for a moment. The main point of his thinking and writing is to insist that revealed knowledge is final, that it takes precedence over everything that is or can be set against it, that it is beyond amendment or appeal.

Very well; let us try the other alternative, and say that what must be given up are those affirmations of our natural knowledge that stand in contradiction to revealed truth; these illusions are the growing pains of knowledge and will disappear as humanity matures. I have more sympathy with this suggestion than some of my philosophic colleagues, for, holding as I do to the theory of internal relations, I would go so far as to say that none of our so-called knowledge is wholly true just as it stands. But this dependence of our concepts and insights upon the changing context of knowledge is itself a matter of degree. To say that the proposition ‘colds are produced by a virus’ is not true with its present meaning would be a minor shock, but its repercussions would not be nearly so destructive as those of denying that two and two are four. Our question then is, How serious would be the consequences of denying the sort of propositions to which Barth is opposing revelation?

I can only think they would be disastrous. For among the propositions that would have to be given up are some of the central insights of ethics and cosmology. Is there anything clearer in ethics than that a man cannot be condemned as morally evil because his great-grandfather sinned, or that to inflict extreme and gratuitous pain on a child or an animal is wrong? Is there anything clearer in cosmology than that if a mind knows all there is to know it cannot grow in knowledge; that if it is not in time it cannot grow older in time; that if it is omnipresent there is nothing outside itself to know or love? These are the kinds of insight which, in Barth's theology, conflict with revealed truth. They cannot be reconciled with that truth unless their present meaning is revised out of recognition or set down as false. And that would quite simply destroy both ethics and speculative thought. If it were now to be called right to condemn the living for the deeds of the dead and to inflict gratuitous suffering, then anything could be right; the distinction between right and wrong as we know it would have ceased to exist. If a mind could at once grow and not grow in knowledge, grow older and yet not grow older, love others without there being others to love, then anything could be true, and the distinction between truth and falsehood has been blurred irreparably. Natural knowledge would be so confounded that both sides of a contradiction might be true.

Let us see where we are. We have been considering what Barth can mean by denying the jurisdiction of philosophy or natural reason over theology. If it means merely that reason as now exercised falls short of ultimate truth, we can only agree. If it means that the conflicts between revealed and natural insights are such as may be removed by expanding knowledge and are only a temporary veil for a coherent world beyond them, the question is on which side the revision is to take place. That revealed knowledge can be revised Barth would of course deny. What must be given up as it stands is therefore natural knowledge. But we have seen that the required revision of natural knowledge would revise it out of existence by denying the truth of insights that are clear and crucial. It would even compel us to accept as true what presents itself as self-contradictory. But to say that a statement, though self-contradictory, is still true is to say that reality itself is incoherent. This second interpretation of Barth's meaning, if thought out, thus carries us on to the third.


12 The third interpretation is that the conflict is genuine and beyond remedy. Revelation tells us what is not only unintelligible to natural reason but a challenge and offence to it, and before a challenge from an absolute authority reason can only surrender. This, I think, is what Barth was really saying. In spite of the attempt by some of his followers to tone down his conflict with philosophy and to deny any disparagement of reason, he was surely saying this: revelation is not subject to rational tests, and even if it requires, as it does, that we should abandon some of the most certain of our ethical and speculative insights, or the law of contradiction itself, it is ours not to reason why, but to obey.

There are those who would say that even with this interpretation Barth is no enemy of reason rightly conceived. When in a lecture at St Andrews I ventured to describe him as an irrationalist, an eminent Scottish theologian took me to task in the Edinburgh Scotsman, insisting to my astonishment that ‘Barth stands out in Europe as the great protagonist against irrationalism’. His case, as I recall, was this: the task of thought is to conform to its object. If its object happens to be one that does not obey the rules we have set up for the conduct of reason, then the truly rational course is to conform to the object and override the rules. What is really irrational is to try to force reality itself into the rickety procrustean bed of our own logic. That seems at first sight rather sensible. It has often been suggested that the laws of logic are laws of our thought but not of reality. But consider what that means. Take for example the best known law of logic, the law of contradiction. When we say that although thought must conform to this law things need not, what we must mean, for instance, is that there may be a surface that in the same sense and in the same place is both black and not black. Now we can either understand this proposition or not. If we claim that we can, we have contradicted ourselves, for by saying that the law of contradiction is a law of thought, we mean that we cannot escape from it, that we cannot see two contradictory things to be true. On the other hand, if a thing's having and also not having a certain character is inconceivable, then our thesis—that reality may be self-contradictory—is itself inconceivable. One may protest that this is logical hocus pocus. But to philosophers logic is not unimportant, and a predicament from which it is impossible to conceive what an escape could mean is not a predicament in which it is very tragic to be caught.

13 When Barth says that, illumined by revelation, we must accept things as true which mere reason would call false, he is implying that the standards of reason are invalid. This view, as just suggested, seems incapable of clear statement. We may add that no one, Barth included, can live up to it in practice. He prefers, as we have seen, not to rest his case on argument; he appeals straight to absolute authority. Still he does write theology indefatigably, and just what is theology? As practised by Barth, it seems to consist of statements written in German or English and professing to be true statements of historical fact, of the meaning of Biblical passages, of the relation of rational to revealed knowledge, of conjectures and conclusions innumerable about nature, grace, sin, miracle, creation, judgement, life and death. Barth plainly expects us to accept his statements as true, his exposition as relevant, and his conclusions as valid. He expects us to accept all this while accepting at the same time his indictment of natural reason as unreliable, while believing that some of its clearest and most certain insights are false, while questioning even its simplest and most universal demands. Are we not justified in saying to him: You cannot have it both ways? If reason at its best and clearest is an unsafe guide, then your theology, dependent at every step on the exercise of that reason, is itself a journey over quicksands. On the other hand, if the guide that has taken you over the vast theological mileage you have travelled is as reliable as you plainly assume, then you can hardly turn, at the threshold of revelation, and dismiss it as a blind leader of the blind.

Barthians would no doubt reply: We have every right to do that. We are not denying the validity of reason generally; we are admitting its competence in its own field, which is that of nature, and denying its jurisdiction only beyond that field, in the region of the supernatural. Surely that gives you philosophers room enough. Why are you not content?


14 We are not content because in the area thus forbidden to us lie many of the problems which a deep concern and an old tradition have made specially our own. Philosophers for some thousands of years have been searching into creation, immortality, God, freedom, evil. They have not, perhaps, been notably successful, but they have closed many misleading trails and achieved, as they thought, some glimpses of the summit toward which they have been struggling. You now tell them that, with supernatural aid, you have been privileged to see the summit, that it is not in their world at all, that there is no road to it from where they stand, that all the trails they have been exploring wind up in swamps or deserts, and that they had therefore better give up their misguided effort.

Now it is not very likely that on receipt of such instructions philosophers will cease and desist from their efforts. Except in authoritarian communities, ecclesiastical or political, they lack practice in such obedience, and besides they have much at stake. If their occupation is to be so largely gone, they will want to know what precisely Barth has seen during his sojourn on the hilltop which vetoes their attempt on the summit from another side. When they ask this question, they receive, as we have seen, a most disconcerting answer.

The answer is that there is no answer they could understand. Even in his revealed essence, says Barth, God is ‘unenthullbar’; even as Deus revelatus he is Deus absconditus; he is the absolutely other; he is ‘pure negation’; he cannot be described in any terms available to our human faculties. ‘Revelation’, says Kraemer, ‘is by its nature inaccessible and remains so, even when it is revealed’. Brunner agrees: ‘in the person of Jesus God tells us what no man can know, what is in no kind of continuity with our human ideas, no, not even with the best and highest we possess.’ The content of this revelation cannot even be recognised as such by human faculty; if I do recognise it, it is not I but God in me that does so; if I converse with you about it, it is not you but God in you that understands. Now surely the appropriate mode of expression for such a revelation is silence. What has been seen is more ineffable than the mystic's vision. When the mystic comes down from his hilltop, he comes as a rule with a smile, but a smile means that something in our sense good has been experienced, and the transcendentalism of Barth and Brunner outsoars all human good. The life of the religious man, in Brunner's striking image, is a wheel whose spokes all radiate from a hub—only the hub is hollow. Man's highest hopes and efforts are bent toward reaching a shrine whose doors are at last flung open only to reveal to his straining sight that it is empty.

But if it is thus empty, what are those thousands of pages about? Barth says that though the content of revelation is wholly beyond us there are witnesses in the way of Scriptural texts, the words and acts of Jesus, the history, liturgies and sacraments of the church, that are relevant to this revelation. I do not see how they could be. To say that they are relevant to the truth, or a witness to it, in the sense of offering evidence for it, is to bring this truth within the field of rational thought, where one belief confirms or disconfirms another. To say that in the character of Jesus we have a suggestion or an adumbration of the divine character is to say, if anything at all, that the character of Jesus is more or less like the divine character, and then the contention that God is wholly other has been abandoned. Sometimes Barth qualifies his agnosticism by admitting that we can make the acts or deeds of Deity the objects of our thought, but not Deity himself, since he is a subject. Now it is true that I shall never know you or make you my object if that means that I shall sense or directly perceive you. But that does not imply that I cannot know you in another and perfectly relevant sense. Even if, in order to reach each other, we must cross a bridge of inference, we may know each other very well indeed. Of course Barth may mean by ‘subject’ something wholly different from what the term commonly means. If he does, the argument ceases to be invalid and is merely unintelligible.


15 There is a certain advantage in asserting the existence of the unintelligible. For you can then say unintelligible things about it, and to any objection you can reply that it is unreasonable to insist that the unintelligible should appear out of character. We have already found suggestions of this procedure in Barth. In endeavouring to communicate the incommunicable, he uses many descriptive terms as somehow appropriate to revelation. It is a message or a word; it is also the person of Christ himself; it is a state of faith; it is a state of knowledge; it is a decision or act, though also an influx received passively; it is truth; it is the service of God; though this is the same as the knowledge of God, and the same again as the justice, mercy, and grace of God. What is Barth trying to tell us by all these characterisations? If revelation is utterly discontinuous with all we know, they can mean nothing, and why mislead us by using them? If they are really descriptive of revelation, even by metaphor or analogy, then God is not discontinuous with us after all. And since in that case they bear meanings that we can make sense of, should not some regard be paid to those meanings when the words are put together? To say, as Brunner does, that ‘only by this act does man become a person’ and then to add that faith is a free gift in which man does not act at all; to say, as Barth does, that revelation is truth (that is, a relation between proposition and fact) but also somehow a person, though it is really also a state of knowledge which somehow is also a decision—to say these things is to offer for our belief an incoherent patchwork. If a philosopher were to say them, he would be dismissed as gabbling, since they cancel each other out. And he is disposed to wonder, perhaps naïvely, why that which would be gibberish in his own mouth should be profundity in another's.

Barth calls his theology dialectical. To the philospher dialectical thinking means thinking that takes us slowly nearer to the goal through a series of zigzag steps. We are now told that this is just what thinking cannot do. The thinker can no longer take a ‘position over against God so that from this he may form thoughts about God, which are in varying degrees true, beautiful and good.’25 ‘The value of what theology has to say is measured by no standard except that of its object, ‘and that object is separated by an impassable chasm from even our highest thought. The thinker is thus compelled to relinquish a powerful means of persuasion, the value of a felt approximation to an immanent ideal. Though there is much in Hegel's reasoning that seems to me invalid, there is something most impressive in the widening sweep of vision as he climbs the ladder of his categories toward the absolute idea; it is not hard to feel, as one follows him, something of the excitement that Spinoza felt as he approached his third kind of knowledge, that Newton felt as he found himself drawing nearer to the supreme law of the physical universe. The steps of the intellectual dialectician may be halting and his progress slow, but his quest itself is not misguided; indeed it is the inevitable expression of ‘the intellectual love of God’. But if the theologian disclaims what is so natural and inevitable, if he insists that progress toward the end of knowledge brings us no nearer to God at all, then in emancipating himself from human nature he is also emancipating himself right out of human interest. When the dialectical pursuit of truth can promise no better knowledge of ultimate things, even at the end, than irremovable illusion, why travel the stony road at all?


16 Something similar must be said about ethical thinking. The character of Jesus is for me, as for so many millions of others, a source of recurring wonder and fascination. When it is put forward as the flawless ideal to which all human conduct should try to approximate, I take the claim seriously, though I cannot simply shut my eyes and swallow it. I try to understand it; I try to test its claim in the only way open to me, namely by noting whether, as my moral insight matures, I find myself closer to it, and whether, as I read expositions of it by preachers and theologians, I can say, ‘Yes, on this point and on this, I now see that he is right.’ The most powerful plea for a moral authority is one that, forgoing all appeal to authority, asks only the ratification of reflective conscience; does the ideal, if it is lifted up, draw to it all honest and thoughtful minds? Some expositors make a powerful case by revealing, perhaps unconsciously, what life in that personal presence has done to them. To take a few examples that may mean less to others than to me: when one comes in touch with the singular moral grace of Dean Church, or the inexhaustible affection for his fellow men of Scott Holland or Charles F. Andrews, or the sunny serenity of Phillips Brooks, or the ethical sensitiveness of James Martineau, or Schweitzer's sense of fellowship with even the humblest life, one may feel a little like Adams and Leverrier when they marked the aberrations of Uranus from its orbit; they were sure that there was a great unseen body farther out that was pulling the planet toward it. Perhaps by reason of my own obtuseness, when I read Barth I feel nothing of all this. I hear the bleak strident voice repeating that the Wholly Other is over all, that we have no claim on his mercy, that though he has made us he finds us hateful, that he commands absolute acceptance, unquestioning obedience, unconditional abject surrender. It is as if the harsh voice were determined, in demanding this surrender, to beat us down still further by insisting that there is and can be no earthly reason for it. If one is attracted by the kindness or courage or tenderness of the Jesus who loved children and would break the Sabbath for an ox in distress, one is attracted by the wrong things, the kind of virtues that mere natural man can respond to and hope to attain, whereas the Jesus to whom surrender should be made is the incognito Jesus who was wearing these virtues as a disguise. One of the most persuasive arguments in the old theological armory was that in Christianity we find life and find it more abundantly, and that its way of life alone can satisfy our native moral sense. To Barth this argument is without force.

Indeed we may wonder whether Barth, in his eagerness to save the Deus absconditus in the life of Christ, has not overshot the mark and compromised much that is essential in Christ's own teaching. One is often made uneasy in reading Barth by the sense that his guide in interpreting the New Testament is not the Jesus of the synoptic gospels but the Paul of Romans and Galatians, in short that he is more Pauline than Christian. As Dr McGiffert pointed out, Jesus recognized virtue as a natural achievement, not a supernatural gift. He had an uncommonly high estimate of man's moral powers. In spite of all the wickedness he saw about him, and the disobedience to the divine will, he could summon his hearers to be perfect even as their Father in heaven was perfect without ever suggesting that divine aid was needed or that they would have to be made over by divine power if they were to measure up to such a standard. Of the pessimism so widely prevalent in the Hellenistic world, the pessimism that counted man wholly incapable of good without the influx of the divine, there is no trace in the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels.…26

In dealing with the character of Christ, interpreters have often gone to one or other of two extremes. Those like Luther or Calvin who have stressed his identity with Deity have often exalted him out of human understanding, while thinkers like Renan, concerned wholly with his humanity, have found in him a soft-hearted and romantic visionary. It seems probable that the worship of the Virgin, whose human tenderness there was no reason to explain away, was in part a reaction against an exaltation of Jesus that made him unapproachably remote. Needless to say, the Jesus that appears in Barth's pages is astronomically far from that of Renan; some will think him also far from the gentle and often intensely human figure of the biographical gospels.


17 Because of this uncompromising distrust of the thought and conscience of the natural man, Barth has strange philosophic affiliations. In the theory of knowledge he shares important convictions with the positivists. He holds, with Ayer and Carnap, that the attempt by rational thought to go beyond nature to the supernatural is inevitably defeated, though of course he draws a different inference from the defeat. He concludes that since we cannot reach a knowledge of God through rational means we must do so through non-natural means; the positivists conclude from the same premise that the attempt itself is meaningless. But as to the futility of metaphysics, the two schools join hands.

In ethics, Barth has a striking affinity with Stoicism, though at one of its weakest points. The Stoics taught that virtue and vice were not matters of degree; if you were guilty of one peccadillo, you had broken the moral law as truly as if you had murdered your mother, and there was no health in you. Barth talks at times in a curiously similar vein. ‘Either we love God and our neighbour or we hate them both. Either we are obedient or we are not. There is no possibility here of a third, middle course, consisting in some sort of approximation.… Man with all his outward and inward achievements… stands in the presence of that Law as one who is unthankful and impenitent, and who, since he does not love God or his neighbour, must hate them…’27 There is much that is admirable in Stoicism, but its black-and-white notion of goodness is surely inhuman. It seems likewise inhuman in Barth. If anything can be said with confidence about human nature, one would have supposed it to be that we are neither saints nor satans, that we are all blends of aspiration and sordidness, in short that we all fall in that third class which to Barth is a null class. To say that if we lack his kind of faith our attitude toward our fellow men must be one of hatred suggests that he is adjusting his facts to his theology rather than his theology to the facts.


18 Because of this alienation from humanity in both senses of ‘humanity’ Barth's ethics seems to me strangely sterile. It is hard to deduce anything helpful from a conceptual blank. At first one is impressed by the high line taken. To the question, How should I live? Barth gives the same answer as to the question, What is revealed?—simply ‘Jesus Christ’. ‘The Law, the rule and the first principles underlying all service of God are—Jesus Christ.’28 ‘Was sollen wir denn tun?’ he asks in the Römerbrief, and answers: ‘We can, indeed, do one thing, not many.… For what can a Christian do in society other than follow attentively the doing of God?’ No one wants to be put in the position of criticising action from such a source, but one does need more than a name. One wants guidance; one wants to know how Jesus would deal with a communist, whether he would approve the professional artist, soldier, or athlete, what he would say to a confused youth about sex. To all such questions Barth's answer seems to be the same: Act out the indwelling Christ. But since the Christ who may dwell in us is discontinuous with us, both psychologically and ethically, it is hard to see how any inference can be drawn from his presence as to what a human being in a given position would or should do. If, in our eagerness for some cue, we were to look at Barth's own life, with its curious mixture of courage toward the Nazis, complaisance toward the Communists (he was silent throughout the Hungarian crisis), kindliness to the men in Basel jails, and arrogance toward critics (anyone who ventures to criticise ‘should have read me completely’), the light gained is flickering.

Brunner takes the same puzzling line. ‘We never know what is right for us,’ he says, ‘nor what is best for the other person. We go astray when we think we can deduce this from some principle or other, or from some experience,…’29 Both men are clear enough about what non-Christian living means; it means everything that in our own persons we do, from holding up a bank to rescuing a drowning child. But genuinely Christian living is far more difficult to detect, since it is apparently beyond identification by the natural man. Christian action springs from love, but this is not the sinful love felt by unregenerate man for his fellows. How we are to recognise a Christian when we meet him, I do not know. We can be fairly confident, I suppose, that if he is as much of a Hindu as Gandhi or as much of a humanist as Schweitzer, he is not a good man in the true sense; one must be a Christian in Barth's sense in order to be that. But is the man who robs a bank also beyond the pale, along with the Gandhis and the Schweitzers? How can one tell? If human virtues may disguise sinners, may not human vices disguise saints? If the centre from which a man's actions proceed and the standard employed in those actions are discontinuous with our natural ones, it is hard to see how any judgement is possible. The courts indeed might have something to say, but they are administering mere human justice, which we are assured is corrupt. If Barth means what he repeatedly says, it seems to follow that our jails may be filled with Christians under aliases, just as our churches and humane societies are filled with people suffering from sinful human kindness.

I do not suppose that Barth actually thinks in this way. The absolute wall of separation between natural and supernatural is like the ‘absolute’ American wall of separation between church and state, or the ‘iron curtain’ between East and West; there is a continual osmosis through it. Does Barth really feel natural love and selflessness to be as little irradiated by the divine presence as hatred or malice? That is hard to believe. His transcendence tends, in spite of itself, to melt into moral immanence. There is a similar welcome inconsistency in his account of the approach from below. He is constantly using terms in his theology that seem to bear more meaning than they ought to bear if his theory is true. He remarked in the first of his Princeton lectures: ‘the God of the Gospel has a genuine interest in human existence;’ ‘the God of Schleiermacher cannot show mercy. The God of the Gospel can and does’; ‘God is father, brother and friend’. If such statements do not imply that our thought of God as a person is justified, that we are right in ascribing to him the sort of interest, mercy, and kindness that we know, their meaning is lost on me. In most of his writings Barth repudiates the applicability of such concepts to God. In one of his Princeton lectures he seemed to acknowledge the harshness of this position by making a distinction, not developed, between ‘theanthropology,’ which he considered permissible, and ‘anthropotheology,’ which he did not. This distinction I have failed to grasp.


19 Still, discontinuity has been his main insistence. It is on this, not on his lapses from it, that we must fix attention. And I should like now to say something about the relevance and opportuneness of this teaching in our present situation. I cannot think that the future is on its side. Not that this would disprove it; truth and success are different things, and the truth of a speculative doctrine is not to be tested either by the range of its acceptance or by the good or ill effects of accepting it. But Christianity is more than a speculative doctrine; it is also a way of life; and in appraising a way of life, we cannot be indifferent to its working in society. Christianity, as Barth interprets it, involves an attitude toward thought and action that impinges on the culture of our time in significant ways.

Consider first its impact on the non-Christian world. Our mastery of space is crowding us so closely together that we are now less than twenty-four hours away from great centres of Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist population. Since our ties with these cultures are bound to grow closer, the need of understanding and friendship is also growing. Scholars are discovering in the faiths of the world many areas of resemblance and finding the same sense of dependence on the unknown, the same universal yearnings for light, security, and guidance. These other religions are the product of many centuries of what we may call religious experimentation in the way of thought, ritual, and practice; they have the deep respect and allegiance of their followers; indeed the people of India are disposed to think that, whatever the advantage of the West in material wealth, they themselves have been more sensitised by their religion to things of the spirit than we have by ours. What is the neo-orthodox attitude toward these faiths?

‘The God of Mohammed’, Barth answers, ‘is an idol like all other idols, and it is an optical illusion to characterise Christianity along with Islam as a “monotheistic” religion’.30 All other religions are the product of the natural man, the sort of religion, one gathers, of which he says that ‘the Church does not take the slightest interest in religion’ and ‘religion must die’. With such faiths the true faith cannot compromise. Revelation has been given through one man only, Jesus of Nazareth, and through him only to the eyes of the elect; to say that it was in this sense present in any degree in the Buddha, for example, is blasphemy. If the people who follow Buddha do not see this, it is because God has withheld from them that power to do so with which he has favoured many people in the West, and there is no effort on their part that can hope to open their eyes or secure a similar blessing.

What is the likelihood that Christianity, so interpreted, will be heard gladly or with conviction by the people of other faiths? Surely not very great. They will suspect, and with some reason, a hidden link to that Western arrogance of which they carry long memories. They are invited to accept, without argument and in scorn of argument, a Deity who has focused his favours on a fraction of the race—and not their fraction. They do not see why revelation should come through one Scripture only, or one life only, or why the miracles of one faith should be true miracles and those of all others fraudulent, even when equally well attested, or why religious experiences that seem qualitatively very much alike should be revelatory in Basel and illusory in Bombay. The Christianity that is a gospel of love, overflowing boundaries of race, class, and colour, they understand, and their Gandhis and Tagores and Suzukis have listened to it and gratefully borrowed from it. But when offered this exclusive transcendentalism with the take-it-or-leave-it postscript, they may be expected to return it to the sender with the endorsement, ‘Thank you very much; on the whole, we prefer to leave it’.


20 Consider, secondly, how the temper of this teaching suits that of our newly emerging world. The new atmosphere is one of hope, based on effort plus the increasing mastery of nature. Since the United Nations was founded, scores of new nations have been added to its membership, most of them exultant over their freshly won freedom. These peoples are trying to absorb the ambition, energy, and self-reliance that have made the more advanced nations what they are. The Russian experience in particular seems relevant to them, because, as they see it, the Russians lifted themselves by their own rough boots in a single generation from poverty and ignorance to some degree of prosperity, and to impatient eyes that means hope. The fact that Russia has chosen to make its effort without benefit of clergy is not lost on these observers. They are not indifferent to the things of the spirit; they long for them. But they hold increasingly to a conviction, now orthodox among the Russians, that the spirit has long roots in the body, and that if it is to produce its proper flowers, those roots must be studied and watered and nourished. The precipitate progress of the last few decades has come through a new mastery over natural processes, including that mastery over the body that has added so many years to men's lives. There is a restless and urgent hope in the air, the hope of emergence into a larger life through the control of its natural conditions.

On this sort of hope neo-orthodoxy throws a douche of cold water. Through its doctrine of discontinuity it declines to admit that the spirit, in its true sense, has its roots in the body at all. The goods that are so rooted and that may therefore be gained by cultivation are constantly disparaged. Barth has been particularly critical of American ‘materialism’ and its goals. Brunner depreciates all merely natural morality. Of the morality in which we judge conduct by the natural goods it produces he says: ‘this whole moral gradation which for us is absolutely necessary, simply does not count ultimately, that is, in the sight of God…’;31 indeed he goes so far as to say, ‘in the last resort it is precisely morality which is evil.’32 And beyond all this is the iteration that, valueless and sinful as man's whole natural life is, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, he can do to lift himself out of it. ‘We have as little share in our rebirth,’ says Barth, ‘as we have in our being created…’33 ‘Man's salvation is the work of God exclusively, and to say anything else is to blaspheme against Jesus Christ.…’34 Is this not a somewhat chilling gospel for a world of rising hope in what man can make of man?

Its bleakness has repelled many even of those brought up in the Christian tradition. Professor Marion Bradshaw has written of it with feeling: ‘when I find a theology advocated by its adherents because it makes men feel their helplessness and the worthlessness of even the best that men can think and do, it is simply impossible for me to regard it as “more desirable and profounder”. Reading much more of it could easily have led me into a measure of sympathy with Whitehead's dictum that Christian theology is one of the great disasters of the human race.’35

Barth would probably deny that his theology is incongruous with the time, and would like to think it equally relevant to all times and places. But it is hard for an energetic American or an aspiring African of the present day to feel its relevance or to forget that it is the product of a very different moral climate from his own.

‘we cannot understand Barth's teaching,’ says Cave ‘unless we remember the mood of reaction from which it sprang. In his youth he had shared the generous enthusiasms of the labour movement, and had looked to it to secure the peace of Europe. The War shattered all hope in man and man's achievement. Henceforth it must be utter despair or else reliance upon God alone.’

Of Barth's Romans the same writer adds: ‘Everything human is in it scorned and condemned, and, not least, religion, man's approach to God.’36 ‘A religion’, says John Baillie, ‘that refuses to exhibit its own reasonableness is fellow to a political regime that refuses to submit to a free referendum, and it is no accident that the two are products of the same age.’37 But that age is not our age. Authoritarianism no longer commends itself to free minds in any field. Trust in man's power to shape himself and his future is returning, and a wave of awakened life is rolling over people who fifty years ago would have seemed buried centuries deep from civilisation. For such people, the Barthian theology is an anachronism. To faces turned toward us in hope it preaches despair of all human aspiration or effort.


21 Consider, thirdly, the attitude of this theology toward science. There is no need in our day to stress the importance of science, which has been done to the point of weariness; if one wants some measure of its improved position one need only compare a college catalogue of the 1870s with one of the 1970s on the relative places of science and the classics.

When I speak of science, I mean both the results and the methods of scientific study. As for the first, the results of science, the neoorthodox attitude seems to vary. Sometimes it takes the line that revealed and natural knowledge are in hopeless conflict, but that this does not really matter, since the supernatural is beyond our logic. We have dealt with that line already. Sometimes it insists rather that between revealed and natural knowledge there can be no conflict because the realms are different. Barthians are not fundamentalists. They can read Darwin, Freud, and Einstein without alarm; they have no aversion even to the criticism of the Scriptural record by linguists, anthropologists, and archaeologists. Still, their readiness to approve such criticism is not based on any sense of its importance for their own province. On the contrary, their tolerance springs from a serene conviction that the results of such criticism are irrelevant to anything of real importance in religion. The human body, even the human mind, may have evolved from the inorganic; a new gospel of St Thomas and new scrolls from the Dead Sea may revise our records of the life and times of Jesus; such discoveries matter little. For the planes on which faith and science move are discontinuous with each other. Nothing central to the Christian position could possibly be touched by these researches. With this insight, the theologian remains above ‘the conflict between science and religion,’ which is only an illusion anyhow; what has occurred is a tiresome clash of zealots, ignorant on both sides of where the real boundaries lie.

This is an attitude that wears on its face a certain respect for science. But is it really more respectful than that of the fundamentalists? The fundamentalists fought Darwin at Dayton, Tennessee, because they saw, or thought they saw, that he was saying something important for faith as well as for science; Genesis and The Origin of Species could not both be true, and if they were forced to choose, they were going to stay with Genesis. Astronomy was important, for if it succeeded in proving that on a certain day in the first century darkness did not cover the earth, then the New Testament was at one point (Luke 23:44) unreliable, and it might be so in others. Science is thus paid the respect due to a formidable foe. To neo-orthodoxy in one of its standard moods, science is not sufficiently relevant even to be an enemy. The evolution of body and mind may be a fact; the received history in the New Testament may be through and through inaccurate; but the truth that God exists, that he created the human soul, and that he revealed himself to this soul is untouched by these or any other scientific theses. And the liberals are just as wrong as the fundamentalists. For the liberals, also frightened by the alleged conflict, try to make peace not by adjusting science to dogma but by adjusting dogma to science. What is called for is neither war with science nor surrender to it. Rightly conceived, science is no menace at all. It never penetrates beyond the purlieus of the temple; it deals with accidents, not with essence, at best with mere external witnesses to the faith, not faith itself. As neutrals, we should allow it to go its own way, without either fright or provocation.

22 I do not think this high line will stand examination; there are too many holes in the fence that Barth and Brunner have tried to erect between faith and science. The liberals, I think, have been right in their sense of the importance of scientific advance for theology. If one ignores the rising tide of science, one is only too likely to be drowned in it. To say that the evidence for man's ascent from the inorganic or for the dependence of mind on body has no relevance to the nature or destiny of the soul seems to me plainly untrue. That evidence may be indecisive, but if so, it will be shown to be so by further evidence, conceivably brought to light, for example, by psychical researchers, who are fighting their own courageous battle with the fundamentalists of science. Dean Inge was surely right in thinking that the second law of thermodynamics is a serious threat to the belief in a God who loves mankind, and in writing a book to consider gravely whether there is any way out for the theologian. 38 The anthropologists of religion like Frazer and the psychologists of religion like James and Freud, who have offered naturalistic explanations for religious beliefs and experiences, can be met if at all only by a more thorough criticism than any they have yet received from neo-orthodoxy.

And it is not only science but the philosophy of science that needs consideration. Barth can afford to be disinterested about this or that miracle because he is so certain that the Christian revelation is one great miracle, and he could conceivably be right, that those who have eyes to see will simply see this to be true without aid from evidence or argument. But for those who doubt it or deny it or think it a partial truth, some clear discussion of the meaning and probability of miracle in a world of science is surely called for. Barth's way of dealing with such questions, I take it, is to say that the certitude possessed by the man of faith about the occurrence of this great miracle is supreme and not really comparable with the confidence of the scientist that it does not occur; that if one has the insight of faith, argument is unnecessary, and that if one lacks this, it is unprofitable. One can understand the persuasiveness of such an attitude for anyone in the inner circle. But it leaves those outside of it singularly cold.

23 Science, however, means more than a set of conclusions; it means also a set of methods and intellectual habits. The most important of these habits is adherence to a rule that is felt to be at once intellectual and moral, the rule of adjusting one's assent to the evidence. This rule is not a restriction on intellectual freedom. It says nothing against our entertaining the wildest of hypotheses; one of the heroes of science, Darwin, admitted that he had taken seriously many hypotheses that he would not care to report. But on the assumption that we are interested above all in truth, the rule does forbid us to commit ourselves intellectually without grounds, or to withhold assent where sufficient grounds are present. The wild hypothesis may be entertained, but must not be believed before we have evidence for it, and if the evidence makes both ways, we should accept such probability as the evidence warrants; desire or fear that something should be true is no basis for assenting to it. This principle of intellectual rectitude is spreading steadily into other areas and is making itself felt increasingly in religious and political discussion.

The Barthian would reject this principle at the outset. To chain belief to the evidence in the field of religion would seem to him an absurd restriction, in that it doubly begs the question. It assumes, for one thing that religious belief is the kind of belief that rests on empirical or rational evidence, and this he denies. Secondly it assumes that such belief is an intellectual act, which can be willed or inhibited, and it is one of his main points that it is no act of ours at all but an uncovenanted, uncontrollable descent of grace. These are large issues which cannot be dealt with in passing. Suffice it to make two further remarks.

First, we must frankly admit that when the Barthian takes this attitude it is unfair to charge him with the irresponsibility that a scientist would exhibit by a like attitude in his own province. The Barthian is not denying that the principle of mental rectitude is sound for inquiries into nature, and if confronted by persons who stubbornly adhered to the flatness of the earth or flew to a belief in centaurs and leprechauns for which they could produce no evidence, he would no doubt feel as the rest of us do. But he insists that if a belief is such that scientific evidence can have no bearing on its truth, one way or another, then to charge him with illicitly exceeding the evidence in the same fashion is false and unjust. There is nothing wrong in ignoring evidence known to be irrelevant. And of course if it is known to be irrelevant, he is right.

But here we must add our second remark. In spite of his protestations of neutrality toward science, he is clearly hostile to its own conception of its work. He is claiming a knowledge of objects that it cannot see, by means of faculties that it does not recognise. He would no doubt reply that for science to question the existence of objects and faculties merely on the ground that it has failed to observe them is the sort of arrogance that appears in Russell's calm remark that what is knowledge is science, and what is not science is not knowledge. And if it is true that science is only a set of statements about what is or may be given in sense, as some positivists have maintained, there is force in this reply. But science need not be identified with myopia. It is a systematic attempt to explore and understand every kind of fact. It does not object to anyone's announcing the discovery of a new kind of fact or faculty; what it does insist on is that there should be some means of checking or verifying the alleged discovery. Not that the new object must be a public and physical thing like the sun and moon, but at least that if it is private, like a pain or an emotion, it must have some sort of continuity with the experiences of other persons, or some sort of generic resemblance to them, so that reports about it will carry meaning. I do not think that science would deny the possibility of an insight so exceptional that it could not be communicated to others, but it would deny that the occurrence of such an insight imposed any obligation on others to accept it so long as it remained for them without content.

Science does not consider this attitude dogmatic or negative. It is at least hospitable to any belief that can show itself in any degree probable to normal minds. Of the major beliefs of neo-orthodoxy, however, it seems to be admitted and even insisted that no such account can be rendered and that they remain nevertheless the most luminously certain and overwhelmingly important of all beliefs. And we are called on to honour this certainty and importance even though we have never had the sort of experience out of which they arise. To be sure we cannot have faith, for with that our wills have nothing to do. But Barth does not speak only to be converted, and when he announces to scholars and scientists what the Scripture really means, he seems to be asking them to lay aside that intellectual pride which asks for evidence in advance; they should rather follow the principle he quoted from Calvin in his Princeton lectures, ‘omnis recta cognitio Dei ab oboedientia nascitur’. This makes a demand of the scientist to which he finds it very hard to accede. For implied in the demand is the rejection of that very principle of intellectual rectitude by which he has lived, through which he has gained his successes, and through which he justifies himself in his own eyes. He is assured that from time to time there are lodged in men a set of faculties so discontinuous with their other faculties as to be undiscoverable by observation or introspection, by means of which they can apprehend truths beyond the range of merely human verification. The majority of men, even of educated men, though they bent their attention assiduously to what was being said to them, could not understand it, nor could they hope to do so by any earnestness of research, reflection, or sympathy, though something might at any moment be done to them from outside nature, for no reason that they could discover, which would flood the hitherto unintelligible with supernatural light. I have said already that I do not think this view can be worked out in detail without conflicting with the conclusions of science at many points. But even if such collisions could be avoided, the Barthian would still be asking of the scientist an ethics of belief, an attitude toward the use of evidence, and a conception of what evidence consists in that would require him to set aside his scientific way of thinking.


24 What if the scientist declines to bow at the altar of an unknown God? What if he asks for reasons why he should worship where he cannot see? That, he is told, is pride, and pride is a very great sin. At the accusation of pride from this particular source, he will perhaps blink a little. If his bedside reading includes theology, he may recall a letter of Newman's to Cardinal Manning: ‘I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels when I have active relations with you.… Meanwhile I propose to say seven masses for your intention.…’ Consider what is being said to the scientist. It is not pride for a man to dismiss the scientific view of the world and the entire succession of rationalist philosophers from Plato to Whitehead, and to report that he has received a revelation from Omniscience which is true beyond all possibility of criticism from either science or philosophy. That is quite consistent with modesty; ‘evangelical theology,’ Barth told his Princeton audience, ‘is modest theology’. On the other hand, to look before one leaps and ask for light before committing oneself, to display the kind of integrity that tries to hold its belief strictly to the evidence, to adhere to what philosopher and scientist alike regard as a primary virtue, that is pride and sin. Is there not here some lapse of humour? I am tempted to call in aid two honoured teachers of mine. ‘Humour and humility,’ said C. C. J. Webb, ‘are qualities apt to go together; and one misses both when called upon, with no hint that the invitation has about it anything strange which might require apology or explanation, to express a certain truth not “in the language of our experience” but “from God's standpoint”.’ If that is humility, one wonders what higher standpoint is left for pride to occupy. ‘A very little modesty’, says H. J. Paton, ‘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.’38


25 It must be admitted that the appeal to reason is not an exciting appeal, and that when some short-cut to absolute truth has been offered in tones of authority men have often shown a delighted alacrity in throwing down the laborious tools of reflection and trooping after the prophet. Our own generation has seen millions of people following political leaders who refused ostentatiously to be judged or guided by reason. Such irrationahsm is perhaps easier still in religion, since its dogmas are so little susceptible of familiar kinds of check. And so Tertullian and Luther and Pascal and Kierkegaard and Barth each gain a fervid following when they raise their voices against the presumptions of reason. Even in a communion as comparatively generous to reason as Catholicism, the tendency has often been manifested. We have just mentioned the fascinating Newman. Many commentators have pointed out that Newman's appeal, subtle as his intellect was, was not essentially to reason.

‘Dissenting altogether from Bishop Butler's view that reason is the only faculty by which we can judge even of revelation, he set religion apart, outside reason altogether. From the pulpit of St Mary's he told his congregation that Hume's argument against miracles was logically sound. It really was more probable that the witnesses should be mistaken than that Lazarus should have been raised from the dead. But, all the same, Lazarus was raised from the dead: we were required by faith to believe it, and logic had nothing to do with the matter.’39

And even the young intellectuals of Oxford, we are told, began to go about murmuring ‘credo in Newmannum’. We have something similar in today's outbreak of theological irrationahsm. As Anders Nygren puts it, ‘There is coming to be a regular cult of the paradoxical and irrational, as though irrationality and lack of clearness were a hall-mark of Christian truth’. Reinhold Niebuhr, whose politics were as much the admiration as his theology was the despair of some liberals, could write: ‘The canons of logic and rationality are transcended when reason attempts to comprehend the final irrationality of things.’ And Niebuhr and Barth had voices that were heard in the land; they even achieved the popular canonisation of appearance on the cover of Time, as mere philosophers like Whitehead and Russell never did.

What is the person to do who has had respect for reason bred into his bone? He does not want to be der Geist der stets verneint. He knows that science and philosophy too have their dogmatisms, and he may recall the remark of Bradley that ‘there is no sin, however prone to it the philosopher may be, which philosophy can justify so little as spiritual pride’. He knows that even logic has had its history, indeed that it has shown extraordinary changes in his own lifetime. And if he is the son and grandson of the parsonage, as the writer happens to be, he will have too many memories of the power and attraction of the religious life to wish to line up with its enemies, even if much that was credible to his parents is no longer credible to him. The humility, the capacity for reverence, the high concern for ends neither material nor selfish, the morality touched with emotion, which religion has stood for over the centuries, are still invaluable, and are deeply needed in our troubled time.

26 On the other hand when invited to let all holds go by which he has clung to his standards of reasonableness and to commit himself to a world discontinuous with everything he knows, in which paradoxes are absolute truth, ethics prides itself on leaving reason behind, and all activities of the natural man, including religion itself, are set down as sinful, he feels bound to reflect before accepting the invitation. If he is told that what to his reason is contradictory may still be true he will see and say at once that this is nonsense which cannot even be clearly thought. On the other claims of the new theology he will judge more tentatively. He knows that many of its claims, like those of miracle and revelation itself, are incapable of conclusive disproof and must be dealt with by considering their probability in the light of systematic knowledge and reflection. If he is told that such tests are invalid, he will reply that they are the best he has, and that according to his theological advisers themselves he cannot hope by any effort to gain higher ones. When the theology offered him is thus set in the common daylight, its appearance is less imposing. The experiences reported as unique and ineffable take on a family resemblance to others that are intense and exalted indeed but still natural. The inconceivable dogmas begin to look less like flashes from the super-rational than like the vaguely formulated beliefs of natural minds, suffused with passionate conviction. The central experience, instead of being an inexplicable, vertical descent into the natural order from an utterly foreign realm, begins to seem like many another supposed visitation which appeared on retrospect to be explicable after all by the dark forces of man's own mind, not the least of which is his desperate desire to escape from them and gain a foothold on a firmer shore.

It has been said that in religion men tend to divide by nature into the children of Luther and the children of Erasmus. I belong to the tribe of Erasmus. I am content to take my stand with those un-romantic liberals who, before they give assent to a doctrine, ask what it means. One of these was my honoured colleague Douglas Clyde Macintosh, who, though no lover of Hegel, loved still less that Hegelianism in reverse to which neo-orthodoxy tends, in which the real is the irrational and the irrational is the real. Another was H. J. Paton, who has rightly warned us: ‘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.’40 Still another is Professor C. A. Campbell, who has used words that I should be happy to make my own: ‘The philosopher must claim, I think, that wherever the question of objective truth arises, whether it be the truth of religion or of anything else, it is for reason, and for reason alone, to carry out the assessment of the evidence, and to make the final adjudication upon it… what is there save reason, the philosopher asks, to perform this office?’41 To that question liberals would answer, None. Some of them would go further and hoist a danger signal. A lifelong student of religion, James Bissett Pratt, wrote:

‘The position taken up in certain passages of Kierkegaard and in some of the Barthian writings is sheer defeatism. It is a notification to the enemy and to the world at large that Christianity is no longer logically defensible, that it is frankly unreasonable, and that no one who respects human intelligence can consistently or conscientiously remain within the Christian fold.’42

These are strong words from an exceptionally sane critic. They call for a better answer than they have yet received.

  • 1.

    Nein! Antwort an Emil Brunner (München, Kaiser, 1934), 63.

  • 2.

    Von Glauben und Offenbarung (Jena, E. Diederichs, 1923), 11.

  • 3.

    The Knowledge of God and the Service of God, 26; hereafter referred to as Knowledge of God.

  • 4.

    Credo (N.Y., Scribner's, 1936), 185–6.

  • 5.

    Knowledge of God, 194.

  • 6.

    The Word of God and the Word of Man (Boston, Pilgrim Press, 1928), 17.

  • 7.

    Knowledge of God, 146 fn.

  • 8.

    Ibid., 154.

  • 9.

    O. C. Quick, The Ground of Faith… (Nisbet, 1931), 100.

  • 10.

    Knowledge of God, 127–8.

  • 11.

    Epistle to the Romans (Oxford Univ. Press; London, Humphrey Milford, 1933), 33 ff.

  • 12.

    Ibid., 458.

  • 13.

    Knowledge of God, 178.

  • 14.

    Epistle to the Romans, 258.

  • 15.

    Ibid., 212.

  • 16.

    Ibid., 238.

  • 17.

    Peter H. Monsma, Barth's Idea of Revelation (Somerville, N. J., Somerset Press, 1937), 138.

  • 18.

    Knowledge of God, 71.

  • 19.

    Ibid., 67.

  • 20.

    Ibid., 30.

  • 21.

    Ibid., 106.

  • 22.

    Ibid., 96.

  • 23.

    Ibid., 135.

  • 24.

    Ibid., 83, 84 fn.

  • 25.

    Ibid., 103–4.

  • 26.

    A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought (N.Y., Scribner's, 1932), I, 5.

  • 27.

    Knowledge of God, 138–9.

  • 28.

    Ibid., 135.

  • 29.

    Divine Imperative, 120.

  • 30.

    Knowledge of God, 21.

  • 31.

    Divine Imperative, 175.

  • 32.

    Ibid., 71.

  • 33.

    Knowledge of God, 107.

  • 34.

    Ibid., 91.

  • 35.

    Advance, 13 June 1956, 20.

  • 36.

    Sydney Cave, Hinduism or Christianity? (N.Y. and London, Harper, 1939), 37.

  • 37.

    John Baillie, Our Knowledge of God (London, Oxford Univ. Press; N.Y., Scribner's, 1939), 16.

  • 38.

    H. J. Paton, The Modern Predicament, 54.

  • 39.

    Herbert Paul, Life of Froude (N.Y., Scribner's, 1906), 25.

  • 40.

    Paton, op. cit., 58.

  • 41.

    On Selfhood and Godhood (London, Allen & Unwin; N.Y., Macmillan, 1957), 14–15.

  • 42.

    J. B. Pratt, Can We Keep the Faith? (Yale Univ. Press, 1941), 80.

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