You are here

The Modern Predicament

1949 to 1950
University of St. Andrews

In The Modern Predicament, Paton argues that humankind seems to be faced with an unbridgeable gulf between science and religion or between knowledge and faith. For the author, within this ‘modern predicament’, the existence of natural theology, as he understands it, is at stake, given ‘vetoes’ or ‘bans’ placed upon it by linguistics and theology itself. According to Paton, the former bans natural theology in the name of science and the later bans it in the name of religion. They share equally in the scepticism which is characteristic of the modern world.

From a discussion of the bans on natural theology, the author asks: What is religion? He suggests that religion is best described as worship, dedication and trust.

Having defined religion, in chapter 5, Paton describes the ways of going wrong in religion as mistakes or aberrations. He gives particular attention to four aberrations, each of which has its own distorted vision of God: 1) the obsession with the primitive, 2) the obsession with emotion, 3) the obsession with thinking, 4) the obsession with morality. Other aberrations the author mentions include intolerance and hypocrisy. As Paton understands it, all these aberrations are reflected in the character ascribed to God by the worshiper. The author also discusses impediments to religion. He finds that such impediments include human wickedness and sinfulness. Intellectual impediments, including those posed by modern physics and astronomy, also prove a treat. Paton further argues that the modern development of the historical method is particularly menacing to Christianity, because it has undermined first the authority of the Old Testament and then the authority of the New in such a way that the traditional belief in an infallible Bible can no longer be accepted by any person of intelligence. As for philosophy, the author claims that logical positivism sweeps so much away into one comprehensive ‘rubbish heap’ that it is difficult not to feel there must be something wrong with it.

Having outlined the bans and impediments—challenges—presented to religious belief, Paton next considers some of the responses to these challenges. He points out that one way of dealing with an obstacle or impediment is to pretend that it does not exist. Thus, we may keep one compartment of life for religion and another for science. Paton argues, though, that this merely restates a problem which it has not solved. Another way of dealing with obstacle is to retrace one’s steps, and in so doing, claim that the crisis of religion and science may be met by going backwards into the past—archaism. Paton contends that the extreme of archaism is reversion to the primitive. It is also possible in religious matters not to abandon thinking but to spurn and deride it and, in turn, to welcome paradox and to glorify inconsistency. According to the author, if religion is to retain its sanity, it has to adjust itself to the new knowledge. One way in which persons 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 he has already spoken.

Paton then examines several theoretical arguments for God’s existence—for religion. He begins with the mystic way, although he is rather sceptical about mysticism. Next, Paton considers how a religious person exists in relation to God using Martin Buber’s text I and Thou as a guide. Although the author finds the book open to criticism, he thinks that Buber makes a real advance by insisting that religion must be an attitude of the whole person, an attitude necessarily accompanied by both feeling and thought. From explorations of relationality in I and Thou, Paton turns to examine more ontological and philosophical arguments for God’s existence, including those from ‘perfection’ and ‘imperfection’.

From history the author turns again to philosophy and discusses materialism, phenomenalism and Platonism. Paton then says that perhaps after all it is a mistake to speak of the philosophers’ world. He concedes that perhaps the first business of philosophy is to examine this claim and to study the powers and limitations of the fallible creatures who make it. Thus, in chapter 17, he turns to ‘man and his experience’ and attempts to analyze human experience from its own point of view and to determine the conditions without which it could not be what it is.

Having considered the human experience of the world, Paton next studies the connection between moral belief and moral behaviour as well as between science and ethics. In regards to the latter, the author concludes that science is ethically neutral. Paton also observes that as persons become less hopeful of proving the existence of God by metaphysical arguments, they are almost bound to base their theology on moral conviction rather than on theoretical knowledge. The author next concludes that if a morally good person acts on religious or semi-religious assumptions, and if morality leads—or tends to lead—to religion, we have to ask in what way religious life differs from moral life. Perhaps the simplest answer is that the religious life is distinguished by grace.

In the end, though, Paton argues that the religious person facing the modern predicament cannot afford to sweep aside science as the scientist can sweep aside religion. Thus, he suggests that a binocular rather than a monocular vision may give the most satisfactory view of reality. Paton concludes, then, that the leap of faith—or the leap of doubt—should be made in the light of all that each person can know, not merely of science, but of action and of art and of religion itself.

Kelly Van Andel
University of Glasgow


The Modern Predicament

George Allen and Unwin