Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Proceeding of the American Philosophical Society, 115:2, April 22, 1971, 83-87, Winter 1985-86, 22-25.  The paper was read November 12, 1970. 


The Revolt against Reason in Theology

Brand Blanshard

The last half-century in theology has been remarkable for its reversal of expectations, its sudden turning of a tide that had seemed irresistible.  For centuries liberalism in theology had been slowly gaining ground. By liberalism I mean the attempt to adjust religious beliefs to the insights of philosophy and science.  The liberals recognized that the dominance of science was the chief intellectual fact of the modern world, and that if theology too was to be a science, it must accommodate itself to the conclusions of the other sciences and adopt what it could of their methods. In the contest with theological conservatives, they seemed to be winning steadily.

But shortly after World War I an unexpected thing happened.  There appeared a new and able generation of theologians who, instead of marching forward under the liberal banner, left the ranks and repudiated the movement as essentially a mistake.  They were not ignorant of liberalism; they had been brought up under its wing; some of them had been students of that liberal leader, Adolf Harnack.  But they became convinced that the advance of liberalism meant the disintegration of the Christian faith, and this they set themselves to halt.  Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Friedrich Gogarten, Rudolf Bultmann, Anders Nygren, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr—all were men of strong individuality who went their own ways, but in this at least they agreed, that Christianity was not a product of human culture at all, nor answerable to human science or philosophy; it was a gift from on high, a revelation which, because supernatural, was beyond criticism by human reason.  It was under no obligation to adjust itself to human thought; human thought must try to adjust itself to it.  Harnack, contemplating the phenomenon of Karl Barth, said he would not have thought it possible that in his lifetime a theology should emerge that was incomprehensible to him through the lack of any organ by which he might tune in to it.

I want to raise two questions about this return to orthodoxy in theology.  First, how are we to account for its widespread acceptance?  Secondly, what is a scientist or philosopher to say about its credibility?

The chief cause of its success, I think, is that it satisfied a widespread need.  The need was for a restored assurance, confidence, certainty, in religious belief, which had been frittered away by the rise of science.  Let me remind you of a few facts on which members of this Society will need no enlargement.

The final authority for western Protestants has been the Bible, and it is fair to say this for Catholics too, though they do recognize that, in interpreting the Bible, the voice of tradition and of the head of their church is also authoritative.  Now in spite of the claim of many theologians that religion and science cannot conflict, since they move in different spheres, the rise of science has undercut the authority of the Bible at countless points. First went the Biblical conception of nature.  For example, according to it, the sun stood still over Gibeon.  That implies either that the sun normally moves round the earth, which would be a Biblical mistake, or that the earth stopped revolving, in which case, if it happened suddenly, we should all have been projected eastward at a thousand miles an hour and been killed; in either case scripture would seem to be in error.  If the flood occurred in historical times, how did the sloth, in the time allowed, manage to cross the ocean from Ararat to Brazil?  If the genealogies of the Old Testament are to be accepted, there were no men or animals on earth more than six thousand years ago, though archaeologists have brought to light many human relics whose age cannot be less than three thousand centuries, and animal skeletons, such as that of our giant tortoise in the Yale Museum, whose lowest plausible age is not six thousand years but six hundred thousand centuries.  It is hopeless to patch the Biblical account of nature to meet facts like these; that might conceivably be done with two or three of them, but hardly with ten thousand; they flowed through its loose mythical texture as through a sieve.

After the orthodox theory of nature went the orthodox view of Scripture, a body of writing that is not what it appears to be.  There seems to be agreement among competent scholars that, for example, the order of the Old Testament books bears no relation to the order of their composition, that in a given book conflicting narratives from different hands and different times are often pieced together, as in the early chapters of Genesis, that many of the books of both Testaments are not by the authors whose names they bear, that none of the Gospels, as we now have them, were written until a generation or two after the death of Christ, and that these at many points give conflicting accounts of both fact and doctrine.  Some of the central dogmas of the faith, such as the trinity and the incarnation, have disclosed under further study so large an admixture of Greek thought as to render an origin in unique revelation at least superfluous.  Regarding others, for example the virgin birth and the atonement, such an amazing mass of parallels was brought to light by Frazer and others from the folklore of many peoples as to make unnecessary, and hence less plausible, the theory that they were delivered from on high, unspotted by the culture of their time and place.

Liberal theologians watched uneasily as the rising tide of knowledge penetrated into all the fiords and estuaries of religion.  They often took a brave line about it.  If the religious view of things is true, they said, it has nothing to fear from advancing knowledge; and if at any point untruth has entered in, the best way to purge it out is to give free play to critical reason.  They admitted that we shall have to pay a price.  We shall have to part with much history, many cherished stories, and many old beliefs, along with the comforting assurances and high hopes that went with them.  But at least, they added, we shall have kept our integrity of mind.  And not all we have cherished can be dissolved away by the acids of modernity.  Suppose the entire supernatural component of the faith has to be given up; we still have in the record of the Founder the sure pattern of an ideal life.  So we can save, after all, what is practically most important.

But even here the invading forces would not halt.  Critics like Edward Westermarck and Lord Russell brought even the Christian ethic under raking fire.  They asked whether its relative silence about the values of knowledge, art, and play, and its strong insistence on the values of poverty and non-resistance are acceptable to modern man or even rationally defensible.  The attacks were eloquently answered by my former teacher Dean Rashdall, by Dean Inge, by Bishop Henson, and many others.  But the drift of the discussion was not lost on religious liberals.  If not only the theology but also the ethics of Christianity is to be surrendered to the arbitrament of secular reason, then religion as containing revealed and therefore final truth about anything has in effect been compromised.  Everything once supposed certain is now to be tested and criticized by the methods of secular knowledge.  And plainly put, that means that nothing certain in religion is left.

Under this relentless and intensifying barrage, what was the religious man to do?  The neoorthodox theologians gave a bold and arresting answer, but it was not an original one.  It had been elaborated a century earlier by a completely forgotten figure, who, when his work was rediscovered, was studied in every theological seminary in the land.  I have on my shelves the excellent but rather old Century Encyclopaedia of Names, which first appeared about 1890.  The name of Soren Kierkegaard is not to be found in it.  Why was it that when his books began to be translated by the devoted Walter Lowry, he achieved so extraordinary a resurrection?  Largely, I suggest, for the reason that the strategy he devised to do battle with the rationalism of Hegel was found the most effective line against the rationalism of science.  When Kierkegaard began to write in the 1830’s, Hegelianism was sweeping Denmark like a wave.  Hegel professed to be some kind of Christian, but when that all-dissolving intellect got through with the doctrines of the faith, they were totally unrecognizable to ordinary religious men; they had been transformed by way of fitting them into the structure of the most thorough of all rationalisms.  Kierkegaard’s line was: Don’t argue with the rationalist, or you will be sure to lose.  Tell him instead that his argument is completely beside the point.  He is under the illusion that religion is a rational affair, and it is not.  Faith can be neither proved nor disproved; it is a matter of non-rational decision, made possible by a descent of grace.  Don’t try to defend Christianity; take the offensive against rationalism as a stupid misunderstanding and irrelevance.

This is essentially the line taken again by Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.  Their theory of human nature is derived not from Darwin or Freud, but from St. Paul.  Man is a house with two floors, natural and supernatural.  The first floor is a stye; natural man is through and through corrupt.  He has not always been so, for he was created pure; but he used his gift of free will to defy divine command, and this sin vitiated his whole nature, so that his conscience became unreliable, his feelings debased, and his intellect confused.  Furthermore, these acquired characters are somehow inherited, and since we are all descendants of the original pair, we are all alike infected by this original sin; indeed since vice is hereditary and goodness not, the burden of sin on our back has snowballed to a portentous size.  What can we do to escape our slough of despond?  Nothing, say Barth and Brunner.  Our nature is so corrupt that even the desire to improve is full of sinful egoism.  “Sin,” says Brunner, “is not a dark spot somewhere, but is the total character of our personal existence, the character of all our personal acts” (The Divine Imperative, 101); “the teaching of the gospel and the theory of progress,” he adds, “are irreconcilable opposites” (ibid., 102).  Accordingly, the mood of natural man is and ought to be, as Kierkegaard maintained, one of black despair.  He is under condemnation by an all-powerful Deity who finds him and all his works hateful.

Are we all, then, utterly doomed?  Not quite, for while there is no road from man to God, Barth and Brunner tell us, there is a road from God to man.  The road lies through faith.  But faith is not an insight that can be achieved through reflection, nor is it a commitment of the will, for these could be psychologically explained: it is the acquirement of a new non-natural self planted in human nature by a vertical and miraculous descent of grace from above.  “Without any complementary human effort,” writes Brunner, “man receives, purely as a gift, that justification which he seeks in vain to attain for himself” (ibid., 76).  The new state of faith is strictly indescribable, for God himself has descended into man, and taken over from him; and God, as Barth kept repeating, is “wholly other” than man; from the human point of view, the newly born man is, in Brunner’s striking figure, a wheel with all its spokes, but a strange hollow at its hub.  Outwardly, the man may look the same as before, but all his acts proceed from a new center, and so far as they do, he cannot go wrong; as Brunner says, “God takes over all responsibility for our action” (ibid.) 206).  The new state is one of love and insight and happiness, but none of these words mean what they do in ordinary use, for they are being used of a non-natural mind or spirit.

We can now see why Kierkegaard’s strategy was so important.  The argument is: if God really is wholly other, then science, drawing its ideas from human experience, can say nothing about him, and there can be no conflict.  It is the business of science to deal with nature, and the business of theology to deal with supernature, and good fences make good neighbors.  What theology presents and expounds is revelation, and revelation cannot be understood, tested, or measured by human standards; to attempt that is pride, as Mr. Niebuhr reminds us.  “It has been forced down my throat,” says Barth, “that the dogmatic theologian is under the obligation to ‘justify’ himself in his utterances before philosophy.  To that my answer is . . . No” (Credo, 185).  Even human standards of logic and ethics do not apply when we speak of divine thought and action.  Revelation contains paradoxes to be sure; and the man who looks at these through the eyes of science or philosophy will shake his head over them.  But what right have we, to put it bluntly, to make Deity stand and deliver?  He can judge us, but we, with our meagre faculties cannot judge him.  Ours not to reason why, for that is impious and futile.  When God speaks to man, it is for man to hear, accept, and obey.

What is to be our response to so forthright a challenge to the claims of reason?  Serious religious convictions should always be treated with respect, and particularly when urged with the learning and earnestness of a Karl Barth.  I have time only for the briefest comment, and I am afraid is must be negative.  This theology in spite of its professions, does conflict with science and philosophy, and in fundamental ways.

Take the main difficulty at once.  This theology requires us to brand as untrustworthy some of our clearest insights and firmest standards in both logic and ethics.  It asks us to accept paradoxes and contradictions whose truth would shake our confidence in the ability of thought to attain truth anywhere.  Take a few miscellaneous examples.

If there is anything in ethics that we are clear about, it is that it is unjust to condemn one man for the sins of another, but we are told that God does this and yet is perfectly just.  Again, sin, by definition, is the choice of evil, but the doctrine of original sin tells us that we are deep in wickedness before we have reached the level of making choices.  Again, we are told that an omniscient Deity was incarnated with all his powers in a man whose knowledge grew, which seems to mean that omniscience became more omniscient.  This knowledge, furthermore, included the insight that the world would come to an end within a generation, but though it did not, no error was committed.  Once more, in coming to earth, God lost none of his perfect goodness, but Barth insists that he shared to the full in man’s sin and perdition; that is, he was both perfect and wicked.  To name but one more paradox, can man do anything toward his own salvation?  The answer of Barth and Brunner is a firm Yes and No; if we are to gain salvation, we must seek it, but also the seeking will avail nothing, for salvation depends solely on grace from above.  Brunner admits that this is unintelligible, but holds that since it is revealed, we must accept it nevertheless.

Now if these things are really true, both sides of a contradiction may be true.  And if that is so, the law of contradiction itself is not valid, for it presents itself to us as a law of thought generally, and cannot be valid in some areas and invalid in others.  Unless it is valid everywhere, we cannot rely on it anywhere.  And if we cannot, we can never be sure of anything.  No truth would certainly exclude its own falsity.  Indeed, thought as now conducted in science and philosophy would be impossible, for nothing could be asserted as true rather than false.  If inconsistency is no longer to be accepted as evidence of untruth, then we of the American Philosophical Society must recognize that our occupation is gone (which is I take it, the ultimate in reductio ad absurdum arguments).  In trying to put theology beyond the range of rational criticism, the Barthians have overshot their mark.  If we are forced to choose between this type of theology and the enterprise of reflective thought at large, they do not give us a live option.

It is the same with ethics as with logic.  Brunner tells us that the Christian should live by “divine imperatives” which are completely discontinuous with rational ethics, even at its highest.  He holds, with Kierkegaard, that if such an imperative comes to us, our merely human standards give us no means by which to judge it; it comes from a higher source, where our standards are irrelevant; and we must simply obey.  The case for this super-morality was stated by Kierkegaard in that strange essay Fear and Trembling, in which he exalts Abraham as the true knight of faith because he showed himself ready to cut the throat of his son, even though no human purpose was served by it.

Now the result of this line of defense is not really to save Christian morality, but to throw all morality into confusion.  If it could be right and our duty to do what Abraham did, then no common obligation will any more be binding.  The obligations of man to man, of father to son, of trying to produce the greatest good, of obeying conscience—in that famous example all of these were pronounced unreliable and flouted.  And that means moral nihilism.  Natural men, that is the great majority of us, are asked to believe this about ourselves: that the very ideals we have always followed are condemnable; that the better way of life is being deliberately withheld from us, but we shall be condemned nevertheless if we do not find it; and that it is our duty to hold such an arrangement in reverence as perfectly just.  If this is true, our appropriate attitude is not only one of despair, as Kierkegaard noted, but one of moral skepticism, as he did not.  We can rely neither on reason, for that is corrupted, nor on divine direction, for that is beyond our reach.  The right inference from this is that nothing open to us is certainly better or worse than anything else.  Once the compass of natural reason is discredited, what is left?  Inspiration from omniscience?  But with the appeal to reason and sanity no longer available, how are we to tell true prophets from false?  What, one wonders, would be the ground rules in a debate between Kierkegaard and Dr. Leary?

The rationalist in philosophy need not, so far as I can see, deny revelation in religion.  But he will say that with the best will in the world, he cannot accept a revelation that contravenes his reason, because of such a revelation he could make no sense.  And he will point out that even religious geniuses, when they abandoned this firm ground, have not escaped nonsense.  Mere certainty that one is celestially guided is no substitute.  There is no man who Barth and Brunner would say was more plainly guided by divine imperatives than Martin Luther.  But Luther said he would burn all witches; he favored slaughtering the peasants in the Peasants’ War; and he counseled the parents of a devil-possessed child to throw him into the river.  St. Francis, in times when an epidemic was raging, was for gathering the people in church to pray for its cure, thereby disseminating the disease.  George Fox, who had no doubt of divine direction, was moved to denounce music, games, and the knowledge of classic languages.  These were great men.  But that only strengthens the case that, once reason is in abeyance, the best of us are not safe against confusing our preconceptions with leadings from on high.

I conclude that the revolt against liberalism which reached its acme in Brunner and Barth, noble as it was in some ways, was a step backward into the dark.  And it has had a sequel that they did not anticipate.  For they did not see how broad and easy is the road traveled by some of their younger disciples from “God is wholly other” to “God is dead.”

Posted April 13, 2008

Back to Blanshard page