Reason and Unreason in
One of the curiosities of recent decades is the revival of Kierkegaard
and his antirationalist theology. He had seemed to be safely buried
more than a century ago, and he was so completely forgotten that one
could look for his name in vain, even in biographical dictionaries. He
was resurrected in the thirties by the devoted Walter Lowrie, and his
formidable ghost has been flourishing as the living man never did. He
has become required reading in theological schools from coast to coast,
and his words have been quoted and echoed by an impressive succession of
eminent theologians. How is one to account for this revival?
Part of the answer lies in this: Theologians have discovered that his
strategy, devised for one purpose, is adaptable to another. His defense
against the rationalism of Hegel may be used again in meeting the
rationalism of science. The strategy was remarkably simple. Say to the
scientist and philosopher: “Your kind of inquiry is sound enough if kept
within the bounds of nature, but it becomes illegitimate the moment you
cross into the region of the supernatural. Religious knowledge comes
exclusively from revelation. The secret of peace between science and
theology lies in a dear division of labor. The tragic “warfare of
science with theology,” which has raised so much dust and noise for
centuries, is altogether needless. Good fences make good neighbors.”
At the first look, this is an attractive view. It gives back to the
theologian the dignity he has lost in the course of a long and
ignominious retreat. He had to retreat before Galileo, to retreat again
before Darwin, to retreat before the higher critics, to retreat before
Frazer and Freud. He can now turn and face his attackers. He can say to
them, “Let us have done with all this. There is really no issue between
us; our ‘warfare’ has been a mistake from the beginning. The religion
you have been attacking with your science is not an intellectual affair
at all; it is not a thesis to be made out by evidence, or a proposition
that can be refuted by argument. It is a commitment of the will, or
better, an act of faith made possible by a descent of grace. And
because it is not a rational matter, science is simply irrelevant to it.
It can neither be supported by scientific evidence nor undermined by
This Kierkegaardian view was taken over by theologians of the stature of
Barth and Brunner. Brunner puts the case uncompromisingly. “Revealed
knowledge is poles apart from rational knowledge. These two forms of
knowledge are as far apart from each other as heaven is from earth” (Revelation
and Reason, p. 16). “It has been forced down my throat,” says Barth,
“that the 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 . . . our activities
of thinking and speaking . . . cannot possibly coincide with the truth
of God . . .,” (Credo, pp. 185-86). Such statements are a
declaration of independence not only from science but from the whole
methodology of reason, whether scientific or philosophical.
Is this a successful line of defense for a beleaguered theology?
Successful in a sense it certainly is, since it has all but driven from
the field the liberalism that was in the ascendant fifty years ago. But
if the question is whether this defense has really shown that the appeal
to reason used by science is invalid in theology, the answer, I think,
must be “No.” I suggest a few grounds for thinking so.
1. The theologians who are loudest in their protest against the invasion
by reason resort to it continually in their own practice, even within
the religious preserve. Emil Brunner was an exceptionally clear-headed
thinker; Kierkegaard was less so, but was not unpracticed in the
dialectic of Hegel; Barth has read his Kant and frequently reminds one
of Kant in his defense of the unknowable. If these theologians used
rational methods only when explaining historical occurrences or
inquiring into natural laws, their practice would be consistent with
their principles. But they do not. For example, they use these methods
freely when they come to interpret scripture. They regard scripture as
a channel for revelation, but what is it exactly that scripture reveals?
The most important part of it is “the plan of salvation,” which gives
some ray of hope to those who are otherwise condemned. How is one to
find this doctrine in scripture except by using the methods of “natural
reason”—by interpreting the words of St. Paul, by asking whether their
meaning is consistent with what he says elsewhere and consistent with
itself, by refuting other interpretations exclusive of one’s own? How
does one show that the claims to revelation made by other religions are
fraudulent or mistaken, as both Barth and Brunner maintain? If
scientific and philosophic reasoning is really irrelevant to religious
knowledge, one wonders what all the thousands of pages written by these
most articulate of theologians are about. In theory it is idle to pursue
such knowledge by the forming and testing of hypotheses, by the analysis
of ideas, and by the refutation of erroneous arguments; all this should
be left behind when we come to revealed truth. But it neither is nor
can be left behind. Revelation contains the great and essential truths
that believers are called on to accept. Unless these truths have some
apprehensible meaning, unless they affirm something definite enough to
exclude something else as false, it is hard to see how they can be
called “truths” at all.
2. Sometimes their meaninglessness is accepted and underlined. Brunner
has a striking analogy in which he compares the field of knowledge to a
wheel; revealed truth is at the center and all the spokes run out from
it, but the hub of the wheel is hollow. At the core of this hub is the
most certain knowledge we possess, but to the merely scientific or
rational mind it is meaningless.
We cannot dismiss the claim to such knowledge by saying that we have
never ourselves experienced it and do not understand what is claimed.
There are many vivid and important experiences that remain sealed to
most of us. We may never have followed the mathematical flights of von
Neumann, or caught what Schonberg was trying to say with his strange new
scale, or experimented with LSD. Still, these things are not wholly cut
off from us, for we know the kind of experience that mathematics and
music give and can improve our grasp of it; and though the visions of
the LSD addict seem remote, we at least know their conditions and could
produce these in ourselves. But the experiences alleged by Barth and
Brunner are not like this. They are not only meaningless to reason but
unachievable by any effort or technique. They have no conditions in the
brain or mind of the person who has them; they are discontinuous with
our psychology, with our logic, and even with our ethical ideals. They
are granted to some persons and withheld from others on grounds that are
admitted to be impenetrable. Even by the person who has them they are
incapable of analysis or expression, and by the person who does not have
them they cannot be engendered, examined, or imagined.
There may be such experiences. Mere skepticism and denial are no
disproof. But that vacuum at the center of the hub does raise
misgivings. It is dangerously near to nothing at all. When the
theologian, in the interest of making his position invulnerable, divests
it so completely of every trace of conceptual content, is what is left
the most important of all truths or a fugitive will-o’-the-wisp, on the
point of vanishing into thin air?
3. But it does not vanish wholly, even if in theory it ought to. One
can hardly believe that when neo-orthodox theologians speak of God as
just or good or all-knowing, the meaning of these terms has no relation
to what they mean in ordinary speech. And if such terms do retain more
or less of their common meanings, then we may rightly ask whether the
meanings are used consistently. I do not find that they are so used.
God is just, but he is admitted to have deprived the great majority of
men of the means of salvation he has freely granted to others. This
makes him both just and unjust, if the terms are used with any approach
to their common meanings. He is declared to be good but also to have
condemned some men to severe punishment for sins committed by others
before they were born. He is thus both good and not good. He is
omniscient, yet in his earthly incarnation grew in knowledge much as
others do. His knowledge was thus both limited and unlimited.
These theologians seem to oscillate between untenable positions.
Sometimes they insist that “God is wholly other,” and then, since he
is unknowable, the suitable course—seldom adopted—is to maintain silence
about him. Sometimes they include in this knowledge the central dogmas
of the creed, and then, since these dogmas clearly have meaning, that
meaning is open to the tests of consistency required of scientific
meanings. When so tested, the results are not reassuring.
4. Barth and Brunner take a high line about such criticism. Religious
knowledge does not have to pass ordinary tests. It need not submit even
to the laws of logic. To require that it should is to measure it by
human standards, and that is to commit the sin of pride. “This autonomy
of man, this attempt of the Ego to understand itself out of itself,”
says Brunner, “is the lie concerning man which we call sin.” “Autonomy
is equivalent to sin” (The Word and the World, p. 71). Human
standards of truth and goodness are impertinent in both senses of the
word when carried over into religion.
This reply has consequences upon which the theologians have perhaps not
reflected enough. The major laws that govern scientific thinking are not
laws that apply in one field and not in another. Of some laws that can
be said undoubtedly; the law of gravitation, for example, does not hold
among ideas. But the laws of logic are no respecters of property rights
in knowledge. They hold everywhere or nowhere. It will not do to say
that the law of contradiction is valid in physics and psychology but not
in economics, in Ireland and India but not in Iraq. Logicians would, I
think, agree that it, in any area whatever, what is inconsistent may
still be true, then the law of contradiction must be invalid and cannot
be relied on anywhere.
This seems to me to be the consequence in which the Kierkegaardian
theologians are involving us. They are saying that, since God is wholly
other than we are, and discontinuous with the standards of our logic and
ethics, we must allow that paradoxes which are nothing short of
contradictions may still be true of him, and prescriptions that run
counter to our clearest insights, as in the case of Abraham and Isaac,
may nevertheless be his will. But if the clearest and surest insights
of our reason may thus be mistaken, what ground have we for trusting it
anywhere? Does not its invalidity in the most important of all areas of
knowledge reflect uncertainty upon its application everywhere else?
Thus what began as a defense of religious certainty ends in skepticism
regarding every kind of natural knowledge.
The conclusion from this brief review is plain enough. The attempt to
defend religious knowledge by a return to irrationalism will not serve.
The universe is not to be conceived as a gigantic layer cake in which
the lower stratum is governed by scientific law and an intelligible
logic, and the upper stratum is somehow released from these restrictions
into the freedom of incoherence. The theologians who have tried to fix
these boundaries have not been able to respect them, and in the attempt
to do so they have not only reduced religious knowledge to something
dangerously like zero but managed to cast a skeptical shadow over our
secular knowledge as well.