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Spiritual Value in the Natural World

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

The Survival Value of Christianity. By John Moffett Mecklin, Ph. D. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. $2.00.

Do Fundamentalists Play Fair? By Wm. M. Forrest. New York: The MacMillan Co. $1.00.

Natural Laws and Human Hopes. By M. C. Otto. New York: Henry Holt & Co. $0.90.

The Inescapable Christ. By Walter Russell Bowie, D. D. New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons. $1.50.

THERE could be no greater error than to imagine that the so-called Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy is a mere storm-in-a-teacup or “squabble among the monks” about evolution, the “higher criticism” or the like. Its issue lies far deeper, being in essence, whether the spiritual values we call Christian can have any survival value in the world of modern thought and feeling: and the task of the Christian apologist is to show that the quarrel, for all its “apostolic blows and knocks,” is after all a factitious one, and that there is nothing in essential Christianity out of harmony with the assured results of science or the cultural habitudes of the age.

One obvious way of reducing the tension is to mutually segregate the fields of science and religion, handing over to the former the realm of objective reality (so-called) and to the latter the realm of spiritual values, allowing to each supremacy in its own field. This is the line followed by Dr. Mecklin in “The Survival Value of Christianity.” Dr. Mecklin comes to his task well equipped both as psychologist and sociologist; but his anti-metaphysical bias causes him to be a little less than fair to religion when it comes to estimating the objective validity of its concepts. In effect he empties them of any objective reality whatsoever, as fictions of “the religious imagination.” He says:

“Men at any one period may be convinced that their religious beliefs correspond to eternal verities, but there is only one inference to be drawn from the history of religion, namely, that the religious imagination has always dealt and will always deal in fictions.”

But that is not an apologetic but a surrender, even if the flag does remain flying for a while; for whenever the human race becomes convinced that all its highest hopes and aspirations are merely the reflection of its own desires —Brocken-spirits cast by human intelligence on the screen of the Inane, it will not be long before it jettisons them all as useless impedimenta in the brute struggle for existence. God will go last; but He will go; for He, too, is merely a construct of the “religious imagination.”

Dr. Mecklin is undoubtedly right in ascribing to imagination a very large role in the process of religious dogma; but, in this, science has no advantage over religion. It too is dependent on imagination for its ultimate conceptions. Dr. Mecklin does not deny this. Quite the contrary:

“The Scientific constructs” he writes, “underlying astronomy, chemistry and biology are fictions. That is to say, they are ways in which the trained scientific imagination pictures the situation in their phases of reality.”

That is frank and to the point; but why should the “fictions” of science have more objective validity than those of religion? Is imagination two-faced? Does it speak truth in one field and falsehood in another? Are its “religious constructs” (dogmas) to be fictions when they postulate factual Realities behind them, while its “scientific constructs” are to be accepted more or less at their face value? Why should one “fiction” be less fictitious than another? Here Dr. Mecklin has fallen into the common fallacy of using the same word in two different senses in the same syllogism. When he says that religious dogma is “a construct of the imagination” he is using the word “imagination” in its derogatory sense as contrary to reality, but when he admits that it plays its part also in the concepts of science he is using it in the quite different and constructive sense of a legitimate organ of knowledge.

The truth is that science in its higher reaches deals in myths no less than religion, tho it may delude itself by giving them high sounding Greek and Latin names (the old trick of the doctors). Science is no less dogmatic than religion. It uses as many radical “assumptions.” Its textbooks give no warning that its ions, electrons, etc., are not perceptual facts as real as a tree or house. The Nicene Creed is no more a tour-de-force of the imagination than the latest treatise on physics. If the religionist “assumes” God, freedom and immortality, the scientist equally “assumes” the “Uniformity of Nature” and the objective reality of the world of sense. No theology ever imagined a more palpable absurdity than the ether of space concerning which the late Dr. Karl Pearson says in his “Grammar of Science” that it is at once a perfect fluid and a perfect jelly and is in that and other respects “perceptually inconceivable” ; or than the Real Infinite of the Higher Mathematics, where parallel lines are “assumed” to meet. Why should one kind of assumption be a complete fiction and the other at least a picture of the truth?

But why labor the matter? Dr. Mecklin is an honest and vigorous thinker and his book should be read by all who would understand the inner significance of the Fundamentalist controversy. Our only quarrel with him is that when he denies metaphysical significance to all religious symbols, while seeking to retain them as “value-judgments,” he is in fact surrendering the whole case for anything that may with even the utmost stretch of imagination, be called historic Christianity. Fact and Value are not mutually exclusive concepts. It is a false antithesis. All facts are values and behind all values are facts.

Of a very different nature is Dr. Forrest’s volume “Do Fundamentalists play fair?” The gist of the Doctor’s charge against his opponents is lack of fair play in their propaganda: and he presses them (dose with such arguments as these: Why do they seek to drive evolution from the schools on the ground that it is contrary to Scripture (which of course, it is) when they permit to be taught there modern geology, biology and astronomy which are equally unscriptural? Why do they cling to the dogma of biblical infallibility when they reject Archbishop Usher’s chronology which is merely a transcript of the chronology furnished by the bible itself? Why do they accuse science of dealing in “assumptions” when their entire theological system is reared on assumptions far less credible? Questions like these, supported by the admitted learning and good faith of Dr. Forrest, even if they do not set the Fundamentalists to thinking, (which is hardly to be expected), will at least serve a very useful purpose as appealing to the sober judgment and sound sense of the larger audience of men-and-women-in-the-street, unaffiliated with either group, who at least know a logical argument when they see it. On this score alone the book will do a world of good.

Our next book in order “Natural Laws and Human Hopes,” by M. C. Otto, can scarcely be called a Christian apologetic, since the truths it undertakes to validate fall far short of the demands of the Christian consciousness. Nevertheless, we include it here because the values it maintains, “God, freedom and immortality,” are after all, the basic ones that underlie any conception whatsoever of a world of spiritual values; and in this age of mechanism and materialism it is precisely the deepest underpinnings of the spirit that are in danger. We say this while quite conscious of the fact that when Mr. Otto speaks of God and Immortality he does not use these words in their conventional sense. His “God,” following Kant, is a mere expression of the fact that the universe is moral, and guarantees that goodness shall always and everywhere reap its just reward while his “immortality” simply symbolizes the hope that “the higher human potentialities shall be assured a genuine chance”: which is just a new phrasing of the old idea of racial persistence and the harvest of the future. His basal thought is “that the laws of nature are instrumentalities enabling men to further their desires,” that is, genuine opportunities for those who would realize themselves as moral beings, in their own individuality now and in Humanity hereafter. This, to be sure, is not a very far horizon. Yet when men are everywhere making themselves slaves of the machine, immuring themselves in dungeons of “business,” big or little, never making trysts with themselves in the Silences, nor listening to the Voices of summer sunsets or wayside flowers, it is good to hear a voice calling us to “lift up our eyes to the hills whence cometh our aid.”

But when all is said and done, there is one apologetic of the spiritual values, that cannot be gainsaid, namely, the prophetic voice of a living exponent of them, as he not only eloquently declares his own faith, but challenges others to share it. This is what Dr. Bowie (we are glad by the way, to claim him as well as Dr. Mecklin and Dr. Forrest as Southerners) has done in his volume “The Inescapable Christ.” It may be that some of the chapters in this book first appeared as sermons, preached in old St. Paul’s Church, Richmond, or more recently in Grace Church, New York; if so, we can only congratulate the hearers, and ourselves, his larger audience. While Dr. Bowie does not follow the methods of the logician or philosopher, his is a far sounder and more convincing apologetic than any treatise of the schools. The main argument running through the book is that religion, especially at this day and hour, must be four-square with Reality and that, since Reality in its modern significance is inducible oniy from observation and experience rather than deduc-ible from “first principles,” however grandic>e, the truth in religion must be found in life itself, and not in dogmas, rites or ceremonies; and that this kind of truth is self-authenticating. Turning then to life he finds it at least, when unspoilt and innocent, straining at every nerve to express itself in those higher spiritual values which alone give meaning to human existence and of which Jesus of Nazareth is the perfect exponent for all time. He would challenge the living age with the living Christ whose inspiration men may catch, and the power of whose life may be communicated to them. The church he conceives not as an organized priesthood, theology or autocracy, but as the great trustee of the bread to be broken for the feeding of the multitude. This, to be sure, is a very imperfect statement of the rich and eloquent periods of Dr. Bowie, the poet among contemporary preachers. After all, fife at its highest is poetry, music, romance, adventure, and this challenge of Dr. Bowie thus becomes identical with that of the poet—

“Ho, young mariner, down to the haven;
  Launch your vessel,
  Call your companions,
  Spread your canvass;
And ere it vanishes o’er the horizon,
  After it,
  Follow it,
  Follow the gleam.”


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