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The Search for Trinity

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

God Without Thunder. An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy. By John Crowe Ransom. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, $3.50. Reason and Nature. An Iissay on the Meaning of Scientific Method. By Morris R. Cohen. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $5.00. The Genteel Tradition at Bay. By George Santayana. Charles Scribncr’s Sons. $1.25. Lol By Charles Fort. New York: Claude Kendall. $2.50. The Conquest of Happiness. By Bertram! Russell. New York: Horace Livcright. $3.00.

It seems that the Holy Trinity is still the pervasive mystery of modern Occidental life and thought. This is the essential burden of John Crowe Ransom’s “God Without Thunder,” and the remaining books of the list have been chosen to add perspective and accent to this thesis. It is not an acceptable thesis to the modern mind, and it is not therefore easy to defend. A dozen other recent books might have been added to the list, and in fact nine-tenths of the philosophical literature of the last three hundred years, and even then the thesis would not have been proved. However, modern problems may thus be restated, an attitude established, and a method pointed out. Mr. Ransom has written an introduction for the layman who may be interested in watching the progress of the task.

His dominant mood is expressed in snatches of the modernist’s liturgy that talks about the lost paradise of the medieval synthesis, its disintegration into Protestantism and democracy, the stultification of the imagination in mechanistic science, the collapse of the sentiments and affections in the commercial and industrial atmosphere, and the cultural chaos of rapidly shifting habits that never become customs. This lamentation does not expound the thesis; if it were so intended, it would not bear critical comment. It is rather the emotional medium, like the sententious odes of the Greek chorus, by which the epic drama of the Occident is to be presented to a modern audience. Hence also the subtitle, “An Unorthodox Defence of Orthodoxy.”

The argument begins with the God of Israel. He was mysterious, and not fully understood; he was worshipped with burnt offering and sacrifices; he was the author of evil as well as of good. All these propositions are heresies for the modern mind, but they are orthodox statements of the properties of God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity. Together they say that God the Father is forever above and beyond any of our formulations, whether of science, economy, or morals. He is the infinite reality from which the intellectual and phenomenal worlds proceed. The intellectual world of ideas and principles is God the Son who is always in danger of becoming Satan because he is constantly tempted to become God the Father and usurp paternal functions. The Holy Ghost is the world of rich and concrete facts and values in which God the Son is incarnated and over which he is tempted to hold complete dominion. Mr. Ransom accepts the doctrine of the Trinity, but he wishes to keep its distinctions sharp and clear, and thus prevent the confusions to which the monotheism inherent in the doctrine tends. On the other hand he wishes to preserve the whole and thus prevent the reduction of God to one or another of the demigods which each person becomes if the others are discarded.

This is a brief and too abstract statement of what Mr. Ransom says very circumstantially and at great length. As one may guess, he is chiefly concerned with the incarnation of God the Son in modern science. The dangers here are of two sorts, but they are connected. The first danger comes from the scientist’s temptation to overestimate the validity of his verifications. It is regular scientific practice to establish an hypothesis by showing that alternative hypotheses do not work. He may infer from his success in any given case that he has “proved” that his explanation is the only possible explanation. He forgets that any actual fact has an indefinite number of aspects relevant to an indefinite number of alternative hypotheses, and he goes on to reduce the facts to his one single principle. This is,the sort of thing that happened in the early science of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the world seemed to be reduced to a machine and God became its absentee mechanic. The Holy Ghost, the Comforter, was here eliminated, and God the Son became a blind monster as a consequence.

This case also illustrates the other danger. Laplace said that he had no need of God even as mechanic either in the laboratory or in his calculations, and lesser minds concluded that the monster machine was all there was left and was therefore God the Father. The Son was tempted by his partial power over the facts to assume complete dominion over everything. A too single-minded devotion to the Logos thus leads to the impoverishment of the experienced world on the one hand, and to the substitution of a demigod for God the Father on the other.

The fear of these dangers has led Morris R. Cohen in his “Reason and Nature,” an essay on the meaning of scientific method, to condemn these two tempters of the Son and restrict their activities to only those fields where they will remain obedient to reason. He has written a chapter entitled “In Dispraise of Life, Experience, and Reality.” In other parts of the book he takes pains to show how reason may safely and fruitfully cooperate with these demigods, and he finally formulates what he calls the principle of polarity, a prohibition of all reductions of intellectual problems to the terms of a monism. The distinction between substances and principles, or between ideas and facts, must not be violated. So far Mr. Ransom and Mr. Cohen would be in agreement, but they nevertheless differ in their approaches to the Trinity. Mr. Ransom comes by way of the God of the Old Testament and thinks of the other two persons of the Trinity as less important, whereas Mr. Cohen comes by way of the Logos of science which keeps the other two persons in order. Science is therefore a self-propagating activity which is ever revealing more of reality and guiding experience ever more clearly. It is always leading itself back from vicious metaphysical vagaries, and meets experience only to return with greater strength and vision to its abstract clarities. . . . Mr. Ransom is afraid that the abstract monster will become arrogant and overstep its powers. Their differences appear more dramatically when they talk about myths and superstitions. Mr. Cohen condemns these along with “life” and “experience” because they tend to displace clear and distinct ideas. He therefore calls them superstitions and tolerates them in himself and other people only when critical thought proves to be temporarily inadequate to exorcise their demons. Mr. Ransom, on the other hand, finds myths indispensable as media in which the chaos of experience can be calmly and joyously faced. He pleads for the attention of all poets and myth-makers to the preservation and further revelation of that community of actual demons and imaginary ghosts which constitute the Holy Ghost, the Comforter of men, God the Spirit. He wishes to keep and cultivate the rich sense world of tables, trees, and sky for which, he understands, the scientist substitutes abstractions and emptiness; the demons, nymphs, and sky-deities of the European tradition are the very precious and essential environment of the human soul.

There are answers to both of these worries in the history of thought as interpreted by George Santayana, the author of “The Life of Reason,” whose last work, “The Genteel Tradition at Bay,” we have included in this discussion. It is true, he says, that myths belong to the pre-critical stage of thought, and that they become the object of superstitious belief if left to themselves, but on the other hand they are the first visions of the realm of essences that human beings attain, and are the only materials which give rise to clear and distinct ideas. They are not to be avoided or condemned for their initial innocence, but cultivated and criticized for what they may reveal. It is even necessary for the human being in his natural environment to believe in them until he can understand them. In this last book, in the course of a very sympathetic, though sophisticated, discussion of American Humanism, he illustrates the typical life-history of a myth in the four historical stages of modernism, the four R’s as he calls them: Renaissance, Reformation, Revolution, and Romance. These are the stages of belief in traditional myths that lie on the road to a fifth R, Reason. Each stage has its intrinsic integrity and value and leads on to the next stage. There is no necessity dictating their order in time; they may lend emotional color to or combine with each other, and they almost certainly will still supply the atmosphere in which their essences finally become clear to intellect even in its most sophisticated functioning. Animal faith is always present to give accent and direction to thought.

Mr. Ransom’s solicitude for our myths can perhaps best be answered by the underlying thesis in Mr. Charles Fort’s “Lo!,” which takes science, myth, and magic all on the same level. In an earlier book, “The Book of the Damned,” he with much satirical and jeering wit reviewed the procession of discarded hypotheses and the facts which they served to bring into repute and acceptance. Then he added some similar hypotheses of modern science, not yet discarded. His conclusion from his review was the daring prophecy that in the fulness of time the present hypotheses would find themselves in the company of the damned, and those at present forgotten would come back to their own in the limelight of fashion. Myths come and go with their proper times and positions in the procession of human credulities. The present book is a still more daring presentation of a mythical hypothesis which takes care, in the mind of the author and many intelligent members of his audience, of the established facts, and also a great many additional “data” which are at present condemned along with such hypotheses as once certified them. One of the conclusions from his hypothesis is that the stars are, as they, appear to be in ordinary observation, fixed in the sky, which is a shell of the great organism within which we exist, and that they are “not many days’ journey distant.” This is merely a tour de force to illustrate the underlying argument that science is the great myth-maker, that in fact the modern laboratory and the established techniques of the mathematician are the most efficient devices that man has ever possessed for the making and refining of myths. The body of scientists is a highly organized institution whose power over the imaginations, emotions, and habits of us humans is greater than that of any historic religion. Most scientists know and enjoy this position of theirs, though they would not accept the wording of these remarks. Mr. Ransom ought to join the largest and most powerful of modern orthodoxies if he would make his program of myth-making effective.

But the orthodox traditional believer in the Trinity, would not like Mr. Ransom’s or my own manipulations of the doctrine. He would not object to the re-interpretation of the doctrine and its extension into unfamiliar territory, but he would object to the evangelical tone and manner of the treatment. It is in this that the unorthodox defence consists. We seem to lack faith in the power of the Trinity to keep its manifestations and doctrines straight. In the orthodox faith there is also a doctrine of divine illumination and grace; there is also a theory of the dispensations through which time leads human history and in which it determines its epochs. The evangel is nervous and worried, and he tries to hurry the process that history represents. It is doubtful wisdom to preach either going back or going forward from one’s position in this process. There is perhaps more wisdom in Mr. Bertrand Russell’s present, though late, acceptance of the era of science and industry, and the sweetness and light with which he treats the ever-present difficulties in the Conquest of Happiness for each individual. There is in this book an exhilaration which the ancients would have called eudcemonia and the medievals would have called illumination and grace. He belongs by right of contribution to the orthodox religion of science, and he tells in his last book how he has achieved a measure of happiness, the gift of at least one person of the Trinity.


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