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The Yea and Nay of It

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

Distance, thought Nietzsche, lends pathos to human affairs, and especially to our habit of overestimating the importance of current controversies. For Fundamentalists and Modernists alike the current religious issues are vital. The battle rages about Darwin, Evolution, the Authority of Scripture, Revelation, and the Church. Is there not something pathetic about these quarrels when they are placed in the perspective defined by history and cosmic nature? Even scientists seem in danger of losing their sense of proportion. Scientific organizations issue manifestoes concerning evolution. And Fundamentalists assure us that human destiny is at stake. To perceive that the devil is about to destroy mankind by spreading false opinion is, however, no discovery. The devil has been up to such tricks ever since the devil himself was discovered. Moreover, mankind survives.

This is not to deny the practical importance of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. It is precisely as important as passion and uncritical loyalty can make any issue. In a wide intellectual perspective the questions concerning the origin of the human race do not seem to be particularly important. Whether the facts point to an ancestor with a tail or not, the facts equally point to the present absence of the caudal appendage. The discovery that remote ancestors had tails will not enable any of us to grow one now, any more than the discovery of an earlier nebulous stage for the earth destroys its present solidity. Strictly speaking, these questions are neither major problems of science nor of practical importance. What matters for the ordinary man is his Church, the organization with which his forebears were connected, his traditional code of belief, and his outlook upon life. The evolutionary hypothesis, like that of stellar evolution, has little direct bearing for him upon birth, and life, and death. It does not threaten his business nor his comforts nor his measure of social esteem. On the other hand, his moral standards, his interests, and his conceptions of ordered social life have been determined by his affiliation with a church organization and tradition. He learns that there is conflict between the hypotheses of science and certain doctrines of his church. He may, or may not, understand the scientific hypotheses and the theological doctrines. His notion of Revelation may be crude—or he may have no conception of it at all. But this man who is neither scientist nor theologian learns that somehow or other geology and biology are advancing ideas conflicting with Revelation, the Bible, the Fundamentals of the Faith. This conflict becomes in his mind a threat to the institution to which he is loyal, the code of conduct that guides him in his relations with others, and to his position in society. The primaeval slime in which life emerged means for him, that he and his children and his friends have slimy souls. The search for truth thus becomes an unwarranted impertinence on the part of so-called scientists who will not mind their own business. The disease seems, to him, to be confined to the biologists and geologists. The chemists, for example, appear to be well-disposed folk who help society six days in the week and do not intrude on Sunday. But the biologists are Bolsheviks on Sunday and pestiferous all the week.

The remedy for the evils that attend a narrow perspective can ultimately be found only in a wider perspective. In the long run it will be ineffective to endorse evolution as a counterblast to the militancy of the fundamentalists. Why take this idea of science so seriously? It too may need examination in a wider perspective. The history of science and the history of the conflicts of science and theology suggest that the controversy centering about evolution is but today’s version of an old issue.

Neither Fundamentalism nor Modernism are new things. The Fundamentalism of today was the Modernism of yester-year—and today’s Modernism may very well be the Fundamentalism of tomorrow. The Church Fathers were outrageous Modernists, they were radicals of the left wing, with revolutionary ideas that seemed quite mad to many worthy Pagans. And these Pagans were then Fundamentalists. The terms, it is clear, at bottom signify attitudes of mind that imply one another. It takes two parties to make a controversy. In savagery all men are Fundamentalists, but nobody is aware of it. These contrasting attitudes can appear only when men turn from a blind unquestioning acceptance of ideas and beliefs, and their minds become critical and inquiring. When this happens, great consequences follow. Men discover the unsuspected power that was latent in imagination and reason. Intellectual inquiry appears as a dazzling adventure and the search for truth supplants the Quest of the Golden Fleece. Viewed in this light the age-long opposition of Fundamentalism and Modernism is not a sign of senility but of the maturity of mind. For mind came of age when Fundamentalism and Modernism confronted one another.

There is, then, no particular content which defines the opposition of these mental attitudes. The current limitation of the terms to the field of theological interests is a secondary matter. It is superficial to conclude that Modernism and Fundamentalism are vitally concerned with matters like the gullet of whales and the famous voyage made by Jonah. Today’s controversy, and yesterday’s, are primarily outward expressions of a deeper issue. For that matter, there is Modernism in politics and art, and Fundamentalism in business and university organization. The real problem, lying at the bottom of every struggle in every age between Modernists and Fundamentalists, concerns the very nature of the mind itself and of its task and authority in human life.

Where, then, is the real conflict? Obviously it is the age-old contest between reason and authority. Modernism, whatever its guise, proclaims the supreme authority of intelligence. It asserts that all other authorities must be subordinate to the Authority of Reason. It is a faith, the faith that the highest allegiance of man is to reason, and that every other allegiance is binding only when reason pronounces that loyalty to be permissible. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, means at bottom the acceptance of some other authority as superior to intelligence. The results of investigation are not binding in themselves, but only when validated by authority. Such an authority—whether it be a Sacred Writing, a Church, Tradition, an alleged Inner Moral Sense, the Living Buddha, an Ecclesiastical Order, or whatever it may be, must judge the conclusions of reason. Fundamentalists in a given age may tacitly lay aside its jurisdiction in some field—in chemistry or in mathematics, for example—while maintaining in theology and morals a body of truth that is authoritatively true whether or not it be corroborated by reason. Such restrictions are, however, practical and prudential, not the result of the principle of authority itself. Men possess reason, and when reason is awakened, it tends to possess men. Its claims are imperious and its very nature is such as to issue in the claim to be the arbiter of its own jurisdiction. What generally happens, accordingly, is a compromise; the Fundamentalist attitude apportioning things between reason and authority. Where reason is incompetent, there revelation, the heart, or the church tells us what we need to know concerning inscrutable mystery. Dogma is supreme in one field, rational hypothesis in another. If the fields are found to overlap, consternation follows. A controversy between Fundamentalism and Modernism arises. If happily reason reaches an accord with dogma or tradition, so much the better. But if reason oppose dogma, then is reason a harlot and to follow after her is sin.

The conflict, however, seldom appears in its nakedness. Men recoil from the issue, and there is a great to-do about reconciling science and theology. But reconciliation is impossible in principle. The question is not what we know or do not know, or what we can or cannot know. The question is about what is involved in thinking at all. It is the very nature of intelligence to insist upon its own authority. You may decide not to think. Or you may think with secret resolve that conclusions must accord with dogma or tradition or revelation. But if one do this, he is injecting into the process of thinking something that is wholly foreign to thought. If you are going to play the game of thinking, you must follow the rules. Once thought awakens to proclaim its nature, then it asserts that no rival power can be admitted. Thinking, which is reason in operation, may of course conclude that the claim of this or that authority is justified. Mind in one person or in another may become rationally convinced that Moses and St. Paul, Mahomet and Buddha, have proclaimed truth. But there is in this not the slightest surrender of reason’s claim to supreme authority. Reason, whenever it justifies authority, subordinates authority to itself. This is reason’s very self. If reason be a harlot, then you must not follow after her. But if you follow after her, then is she, for you, no harlot, but a goddess, radiant with beauty and purity, and to her you must be faithful.

The Fundamentalist in every age points out how reason perpetually discovers its own errors. But this is testimony to the frailty of men, not an abrogation of the claim of reason. Reason would not be itself if it did not dictate the discarding of error. The claim of reason is not to the possession of truth, but to be the sole arbiter of truth. Life is dynamic, and reason, its most active expression, shares that dynamic character. The intent of authority is to maintain the status quo, but to the life of reason the assumption of finality is abhorrent.

What outcome is possible for this ancient conflict? The assigning of separate spheres of influence to reason and to authority is no more satisfactory in the life of mind than the analogous device in the life of states. The inquiring mind inevitably reacts by calling into question the right of authority to its territory. It makes continual forays across the boundaries. There can be no truce between these combatants. If a final treaty be drawn, this treaty must insist upon the acknowledgment by every authority that every authority is subject to reason itself. We may have faith, indeed, that when authority is genuine and reason is adequate, then these two are one. But reason alone can decide when this ideal has been attained.

The current interest in what is called the “reconciling” of science and religion expresses our abiding desire for the attainment of this ideal. In one sense the effort to reconcile science and religion is absurd. In so far as there is truth in both, they are already reconciled, for truth by logical necessity must be in harmony with itself. If reconciliation mean the critical inquiry into this or that religious doctrine or this or that scientific idea, then Ave must be prepared to abide by the verdict. From the standpoint of reason, both the scientific idea and the religious idea may be illusions. Rational inquiry must repudiate all false gods whether these be set up by religion or by science. For both science and religion are matters of discovery. We must not prejudge the issue, either in favor of science or of theology. Reason is not an enemy of theology. It has but one enemy, the rival that demands reason’s abdication. Reason may discover its own limitations. But this is reason’s own discovery: it remains throughout the sole arbiter of its jurisdiction. Prophecy and poetry, mysticism and mythology, submission to Holy Writ or Church or Vox Populi or even Science have been offered as substitutes for reason. To heed what these claimants have to say may be a part of reason’s wisdom. In all of them reason may find ideal suggestions. Visions born of passion may counteract the tendency to find too easy a victory in today’s physics or biology. Neither today’s science nor yesterday’s mythology can be a substitute for sustained investigation into the nature of things. The ideas of science, like the visions of holy men, are often at variance with one another. We seek Paradise, not the blank vacuity of an intellectual Nirvana. Mystery conflicts with mystery, and the holiness of one saint is not the holiness of another. Reason alone can furnish a principle of preference amid the confusion of recommended ideals. Reason is not hostile to mystery, but to bogus mystification, whether in science or in theology. The sense of mystery may energize reason: but only reason can make of mystery a stimulus and not a narcotic.

If all this be true, Modernism and Fundamentalism were not born with Darwin and Evolution, with Spinoza and the Higher Criticism, or with Galileo and Astronomy. Evolution is but the latest catchword for the struggle that was old when the Church Fathers began their merciless attacks on Tradition. Their portrayal of the immorality of Zeus and Serapis and Astarte was simply the issue expressed in the language of their own day. They were Higher Critics— with respect to Pagan legends. The Modernism of the Fathers had its limits—they showed it when they admitted that pagan gods were supernatural beings, with the qualification that these gods were devils and their miracles the effects of diabolical power. This, however, is but to recognize that the task of thought is not to be completed in any age.

The Greeks, like every other people, discovered a few truths and a vast collection of errors. What is important, however, is not so much the truths they attained as the rational spirit they released. Even in their errors we may perceive the coming of age of reason. Thales, the first philosopher, proclaimed everything to be made of water. Since then many philosophers and scientists have been equally mistaken in their conceptions of the stuff of things. But all have followed Thales in the spirit of his questioning. For Thales had perceived the essential poetry of that tradition which placed the origin of things in Chaos, and brought history down to date with stories of Titans, of Prometheus and Zeus, and all those fancies which now delight our children and our poets. Perceiving that this was fancy, Thales saw that nature must be construed in its own terms and reason must be the arbiter of truth. Thales was no enemy of poetry. He asserted that all things are full of gods. He knew, however, that it is one thing to say that nature is made of water, and a different thing to say that it is full of gods. Both may be true: but to confuse them is to have superstition rather than either poetry or science. Thales, we may infer, saw that the universe contains the stuff of things, be it water or electrons, but also the poetry of things, be it Olympus or Paradise. But Thales discovered reason’s claim as sole judge of truth when he was led to assert that water, and not the thunders of Zeus, is the animating principle of things.

This discovery was the coming-of-age of reason. Reason found itself confronted bv authority, and the battle was joined. What is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad, what is genuine hope and what is seductive illusion—in all these reason claimed to be the final authority. Thales and his compeers, voicing this, were Modernists. And the Fundamentalist defenders of Zeus and Aphrodite rushed into the fray.

Thus the Greeks committed European civilization to the idea that the central principle of the organization of mind and character, and even of society, should be reason. Because many minds recoil before a dim perception of this commitment, its temporary controversial expressions tend to be taken with violent seriousness. If preceding discussion be sound, however, it is clear that any form, such as the present form of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy, is in itself of no great importance. It seems to be more vital than it really is. A momentary social situation lends the question a pathetic over-seriousness, with unhappy practical consequences. What is at the bottom of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy is the most momentous of all practical issues—shall intelligence or authority control life? But the statement of the question—one might say its disguise-in terms of Darwinism versus Genesis, or Higher Criticism versus Verbal Inspiration, is unimportant in principle.

History provides material enough for proof. Again and again the controversy has raged—and after a time the mass of the people forget all about it. Consider the well-worn case of Copernicus, Galileo, and ecclesiastical authority. Let us ask—how many educated persons today think that the fundamentals of religious faith and of morals are bound up with the question as to whether the sun revolve around the earth or the earth about the sun? How many people can be made even to feel that this is a momentous question? To how many does it spell atheism or the opposite? There is something fantastic about the questions. If so, then indeed history has its lessons. For there was a time when many minds, and, among these, minds of high order and lofty ideals, were convinced that Copernicus, asserting that the earth moved about the sun, was asserting an absurdity, opposed to the very foundations of religion and society. The theory that made the earth the center of the cosmos had gotten inextricably tied up with the system of faith and the mediaeval outlook upon man and God. Moses had implied the revolution of the sun about the earth. To doubt it was to doubt Moses, Revelation, the Authority of Scripture, Church, the Consent of All Mankind, and Aristotle. This was doubting with a vengeance. The people who dreaded the effects of this error knew quite well what they were about. Given their point of view, Copernicus would undermine all sound belief. From so pernicious an error man should be saved, whatever the cost. We must not wonder at their fanaticism, but rather at their moderation in the face of so devilish a theory. Galileo was made to recant— admirable restraint not to have burnt him!

Well, mankind survived despite the validation of Copernicus. Little children learn that the earth is very like an orange and moves about the sun—and astronomers go their way unhindered. Yet the centuries have not altered the contradiction between the Mosaic view of the solar system and astronomical teaching. What has altered is human mentality.

The ancients invented the characteristic compromises between reason and authority. Consider the worthy Plutarch, writing in the first century, dreading atheism and dreading superstition. He was ready to believe anything, provided it were not too crude, childish, or immoral. He saw what the Church Fathers saw: that rational minds couldn’t believe in gods and goddesses represented in myth and ritual as highly immoral. Plutarch was no Puritan. But he had his limits. When he considers the stories concerning Isis, Osiris, and other gods he is in a dilemma: he cannot regard the myths as just human fancies, nor can he believe them. He adopts the device of allegorization. What shocks the mind must be taken symbolically, not literally. Zeus as a seducer of women is intolerable. But Zeus, carrying away maidens, and taken as a symbolic way of inculcating a hidden moral meaning, may be believed in quite satisfactorily. Given enough lee-way, a nimble mind can in this way manage to believe almost anything. Today, of course, we should scorn Plutarch’s compromises—and then devise compromises of our own. Thus we reconcile geology and Genesis by assuring ourselves that the days of Creation were really vast periods of time! A few centuries ago and minds were shocked because radicals pointed out that if Moses wrote the Pentateuch he also wrote the story of his own funeral. Or by this, that animals unlike those found in Europe, were discovered in America and Australia—how did they get there from Ararat? And so compromise is resorted to. We were told that the Deity inspired Moses, providing him with advance information concerning his own end. This, for the rational spirit of inquiry, is an explanation of the obscure by the more obscure. The time comes when men lay aside the burden of interpreting interpretations, and frankly admit the contradiction. In a similar way, in antiquity, the Church Fathers finally came to believe the pagan gods to be mythical, not bad daemons. The myths were then left to children and poets.

When we cast such a hasty glance at our intellectual history, can we resist an obvious suggestion? Is it not probable that the issue of today will join the issues of Plutarch and of Galileo? Will not today’s struggle over Darwinism become, like the struggle over Copernicus, merely an episode of intellectual history? Will not the conflict of biology and theology become, in one century or in five, merely a curiosity of history? History and the movement of mind are not yet terminated. Tomorrow it may be a Copernicus of psychology or some Darwin of Biochemistry who will define the controversy between reason and authority. Indeed, it is possible that today’s physics or chemistry are wholly incompatible with some chapter and verse of the Bible. The physicists may be developing hypotheses as diabolical as that of Copernicus. But the jargon of these sciences is incomprehensible to all save a few. The result is that, if the physicists and chemists discreetly keep silence, or articulate only in their formidable terminology, we may not discover to what extent they are undermining the faith once delivered to the saints. Yet we cannot be sure. Tomorrow the popular mind may discover in psychology the chief danger to theological tradition. The psycho-analysts seem to be peculiarly desperate fellows, and it is easy to believe that the devil is inspiring Freud. Thus Freud may succeed Darwin, and the biologists will give up their place in the limelight, going their ways unmolested in company with the astronomers.

A constellation of historical circumstances caused the centering of controversy about biology. Obviously, if belief be so formulated that the hypothesis of evolution is in conflict with it, then there is conflict and to that extent biology has a unique place. In the final analysis, however, the truth is that evolution outwardly represents for the time being only a question of immeasurably greater significance than could be embodied in one science or one scientist. Those who attend the voice of history will not be disturbed. Copernicus, enlarging the imagination and counteracting the follies of a moribund mentality, did not deprive theologians of their function. The life of reason has only begun, and theology, if it will make obeisance to reason, will find illimitable avenues to explore. If the visions of olden times are discredited by reason, we may have faith that reason will provide new ones, no less beautiful. In perspectives of great distance it may be perceived that the quest of the Grail, and not its custody, is perhaps the real destiny of man.


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