Libraries & Spaces
III. On The Necessity for Not Believing
A Roman Catholic Interpretation1
John Courtney Murray, S.J.
In 1949, Homer W. Smith, Theodore M. Greene, and John Courtney Murray each addressed the question: Does our understanding of modern science rule out the possibility of religious belief. Murray's was the last of three essays that appeared in The Yale Scientific Magazine.
In the first essay, Smith argued that modern science had eliminated the possibility of certain, metaphysical knowledge, and that the contingency and uncertainty of our knowledge ought to be embraced with enthusiasm, for now we have substantive grounds for approaching the social world in which we live with humility and tolerance.
In the second essay, Greene argued that, indeed, modern science has left us in the relativistic and humbling swamp, as described by Smith. But, he continued, we must be brave enough to make total personal commitments even with a lack of understanding.
Here Murray calls for a dialectic approach to the question of theistic affirmation and understanding. His concerns with Soviet Marxism are one reason why he claims the inadequacy of humble relativism or brave, blind commitmentEditor.
On entering this three-cornered ring I find that the other contestants have already taken their places; in fact, I find that a corner has already been assigned to me. I must be what Professor Greene calls the "authoritarian absolutist." However, when I think of the particular audience seated at this ringside, there comes the uneasy feeling that I have not so much been assigned a corner as laid flat on the canvas, with the gong already gone ten. Therefore the first thing I must do is to scramble to my feet and protest, on grounds that I was hit where I wasn't standing and hence that it wasn't me who was knocked out.
Less figuratively, I must begin by rejecting the adjective, "authoritarian." The reason is that, as far as I can see from the other two papers, this discussion is moving simply on a philosophical level. The basic issue seems to be the famous epistemological problem in which modern philosophy has been stuck for a hundred years: Can the human mind know reality, and how, and what reality? Now, in the field of philosophy I am by no means authoritarian. My resources are singly those of intelligence and my method is solely that of rational, critical inquiry. My starting point is empirical, and at every step of argument my thought obliges itself to maintain contact with all the realities of experienceintellectual experience as well as sense experience. Moreover, since my philosophical aim is to explore and (as far as may be) explain all that is, I must reckon with all the data that the whole range of intellectual disciplines delivers as the materials of thought. No authority comes into the philosophical process save the authority of evidencethe perceived necessity that so things are. No principle external to reason commands any assent; only I assert what I see to be "there," and therefore true.
Like anybody else, I have masters, of course. Their line begins in ancient Greece (importantly, with Aristotle) and ends with the last man who said anything he thought, and could prove, to be true. But the authority of these masters is only as good as the reasons they advance for their statements. In the course of this rational process of thought I do indeed arrive at some absolutely certain knowledge in the metaphysical order of being and in the intimately related moral order of values. Let this point go for the moment; I merely say here that this philosophical knowledge is not mediated by authority nor does it depend on authority for whatever absoluteness it possesses. The method of Scholastic philosophy is not an "easy way" to some pre-fabricated truth, antecedently proclaimed by authoritarian apriorism to be absolute. Nor, I may add, are the truths it reaches, by a way as "hard" as scientific method ever devised, easy truths. It may not be easy for Dr. Smith to accept the discipline of scientific doubt; but does he suppose it is easier for me to accept the discipline of rational certainty? And if there is risk in Professor Greene's "life-long wager" that his "faith" lacks "certainty," am I staking nothing when I throw for the proposition that I have "certainty" in the philosophical order that is not "faith"? It would perhaps be well to rescue the question at the outset from involvement in any manner of false romantic heroics.
Being now on my feet (I hope), the orthodox thing would be to lead with a left. That is, I should label my position as the others have labelled theirs. However, this is hardly possible; for my position will not bear description by any other name than its ownCatholicism. As a reason for this, take, if you will, Adolph Harnack's description of Catholicism as complexio oppositorum, a synthesis of opposites. If you give it one label ("it is authoritarian"), you forget that it equally merits the opposite one ("it is the home of an immense intellectual freedom"). And so for all the other polarities in human life, it links each pair in the balance of a vital tension: faith and reason, authority and freedom, individual and community, flesh and spirit, the mind and the heart, the juridical and the mystical, law and
love, tradition and progress, the historical contingent and the transcendent absolute, this world and the next, and so on. Of the three positions it is, I think, the most complicated and comprehensive, the least susceptible of a label.
In contrast, Dr. Smith readily falls into a philosophical category; he is quite forthrightly a monist, of the materialist persuasion, on the ground that this is the only position defensible in terms of the methods and findings of the biological and physical sciences, which are the only valid methods of intellectual inquiry, leading to the only valid findings. His essential contention is that of the nineteenth century: "Science has destroyed the foundations of religion (and of metaphysics as well)." However, it seems that his mood is not exactly that of the nineteenth century: "I do not believehurrah! I am free!" There is about it a just a touch of the twentieth century, Sartrean mood: "I cannot believealas! I am meaningless." Moreover, his roots are in the tradition of Huxley's biological materialism (minus its optimism), and not in that of Marx's dialectical materialism; consequently the tendency of his thought is atheistic in the agnostic sense, and corrosive of an old order of things. If I may use T. S. Eliot's phrase (respectfully, for Dr. Smith is my good friend), with him the nineteenth century goes out, "not with a bang but a whimper."2
Professor Greene's position is less readily categorized, if only for the reason that it is not so fully set out that its premises and implications can be clearly grasped. Perhaps he is an idealist, but only in the sense that Descartes was an idealist, as one who took a step to idealism by destroying the bridge between subject and object, intellect and reality. I have the impression that there is a suggestion of the Kantian critique in his distinction of "certitude" and "certainty," and in his bringing back through the hall door of "faith" the "absolute Truth" that he casts out through the kitchen window of "critical inquiry." However, I chiefly suspect that in the ultimate implications of his thought is the assertion that mind is the measure of being, and not being of mind; in this sense he would be a rationalist, understanding the term in a philosophical sense as a contrast to "realist." (Is not the primary of subject over object, of mind over being, latent, for instance, in the definition of absolute Truth as "the distinguishing characteristic of hypothetical omniscience"? A realist (like myself, who am what is called a "moderate realist") would formulate the relation between omniscience and absolute, i.e., infinite Truth with a different accent.)
At all events, for the purposes of this discussion I shall ask my friends to sufferor perhaps suffer underthe appellations, respectively, of "scientific monist" and "critical rationalist." One denies all absolute values (metaphysical and moral) on grounds that both "knowledge" of them and "faith" in them are unscientific; the other asserts absolute values on grounds that, although absoluteness is impossible, faith in them is necessary. (And if my understanding of their positions is a misunderstanding, I heartily apologize.)
In the space available there can obviously be no question of full and fair critique of these positions. I could possibly undertake to distinguish my position from theirs by stating agreements and disagreements. This would be easy to do in negative terms. For instance, with Dr. Smith I am against easy ways to comfortable truths, pre-philosophical certitudes as the premises of philosophy, naive intuitions, the apotheosis of the unknown, anthropomorphic conceptions of God, the worship of progress as inevitable and of man as indefinitely perfectible, tolerance as meaning the ability to live with all manner of opinions while remaining committed to none, pantheism, Puritan morality, fundamentalist Protestantism, uncritical scriptural exegesis, legends, witchcraft, magic, and superstition. In a word, I am against all manner of ignorance, obscurantism, stupidity, error, and sin. As Dr. Smith is.
Conversely, with Dr. Smith I am for intellectual curiosity, full exploration of nature, scientific method, the satisfaction of biological needs, the progressive elimination of disease, honesty, the Bill of Rights, more dignity for man, politics as the science of the possible, leaving morality to moralists, and a life-expectancy of 64 years. In a word, I am making this life as far as possible decently human, filled with some amount of moderately useful activity. As Dr. Smith is.
Finally, we have certain beliefs in common. I find, for instance, the lust of the flesh a sufficiently credible reality; and the loneliness of the soulone knows something of that too. I find in myself all manner of things unworthy of a man, doubly unworthy of a Christianis this the "essential indignity of man"? I believe that evil, statistically, predominates over good in this world. And it is altogether integral to my faith that the problem of evil is most real, most agonizing, without adequate solution in the limited perspectives of unaided human reason. But with all these agreements listed (and I could list a like or greater number with Professor Greene), we are still nowhere; for the profound disagreement remains.
I am tempted to say that the disagreement is total. The reason is that I disagree with their very position of the problem. I think that each in his own way puts to himself a false problem. Dr. Smith's problem is that the advance of positive science have now made it necessary for man to dispense both with rational metaphysics and traditional Christianity in all forms. Professor Greene's problem is that the exigencies of critical reason now make it necessary for manat least for mature mento dispense with rational certainties in metaphysics (nor with metaphysics itself) and more particularly with Catholicism (not with Christianity in general but only with the dogmatic principle, the principle of authority). In both cases the problem hinges on the posited necessity. If it is cogent, the ensuing philosophy has a basis and one could go on to scrutinize it; y si no, no (as the famous Aragonese phrase has it). Now in both cases I am prepared to say that the asserted necessity is illusory; and
the result is a false problem. If man must live only by science, asks Dr. Smith, why live at all? And echo answers, Why? If man must relinquish, as childish, both the quest for certainty and obedience to authority, why not be content with "the faith that is actually available to him"? And echo answers, Why not? Only echo can answer, because the word "must" has loaded the question.
Here then would be the essential point of assertion for a critique. It would most effectively follow the principles of the so-called immanent critique. I should have first to assume, not my own standpoint but that of Dr. Smith, and ask two initial questions. The first concerns the evidence for the contested point: the necessity, to be proved by science, that science is All; have I collected all the evidence pro and con? The second concerns the interpretation of the evidencehas it been dictated by systematic consideration extraneous and antecedent to my actual problematic, or has it been objective (in the due measure possible; there is always an interplay of idea and fact, of theory and experience; what is important is that I should consciously know when I am applying ideas and theories, and be prepared to justify them either as resultant from the evidence before me or validly assumed from some other discipline).
I think Professor Greene has sufficiently indicated that Dr. Smith's fundamental position collapses under this type of critique. Dr. Smith's evidence is selected; he is not open to the evidence from man's "aesthetic, moral, and religious experiences", that tends to show that science is not All. Or when he does deal with these data, he interprets them systematically; religious faith, it seems, must be "either an attribution of transcendental significance to the ecstasies and miseries of the ephemeral biological organism (for the biological category is all-inclusive) or else an apotheosis of the unknown (for what biology does not know is unknowable)." Here we go off into a maze of conflicting scientific dogmatisms with reference to the origins of religion: the Freudians downing the classical ethnologists and their theory of the intellectual "hasty hypothesis," because religion quite obviously (in Freudian theory) rises out of the non-rational, biological category; and the Marxists furiously criticizing the Freudians, because quite obviously (in Marxist theory) religion is not a biological but an historical and social category, etc. etc. Meantime the scientists resolutely turn their backs on the meek little hypothesis that alone survives the buffetings of accumulated data, that religion has a religious origin; that it did not come out of animism or magic or some sort of pre-philosophical thought of the phenomenon of social oppression or economic struggle; that, more or less smothered in alien elements and unconscious of itself, it was always "there," as itself a primitive category, not a derived one.
One could pursue these scientific fallacies in this matter. The genetic fallacy, for instance, that priority in appearance means casual influence, and that there are no "inventions" or new beginnings and no radical transformations (e.g., the Hebrew prophets, Christianity). Or the fallacious equivalence of the "primitive" with the "essential," that enables the scientist to pass a judgement of value on all religion by simple inspection of its primitive forms ("originally religion was animism; but we know that animism is absurd; therefore all religion is absurd"). In all these cases the scientist is the victim of some systematic a priori, more or less philosophical in character. I shall not pursue the subject farther; let me only say in conclusion that the hypothesis of monist materialism is either a purely scientific hypothesis, adopted ad hoc for the severely limited purposes of scientific investigation of a particular set of phenomena, or else a piece of dogmatism. As the former it is acceptable (so, for instance, a theory of psychological determinism in a process of psychoanalysis that only aims at revealing compulsions). As the latter it is intolerable, even on purely scientific grounds; so, for instance, it is intolerable for a scientist to say that human life has no finality, simply because the concept of finality is not useful in exploring the biological organism.
This line of critique itself would show, if developed, that Dr. Smith is not under any proved necessity to live by science alone. After all his science has said all it has to say, the spiritualist and theist hypothesis is still open. In fact, science cannot close it save by illegitimate recourse to some non-scientific a priori absolute. This hypothesis therefore demands exploration, not indeed by scientific method in the narrow sense (for the data here are in another, though not less real, order of experience) but in the scientific spirit, under abnegation of arbitrary dogmatism about the nature of man and the limitations of his intelligence, and with good willthat is, with the will to accept whatever costly truths are encountered in the search.
There is not much room left for Professor Greene! My first task would be to show that he does not have to be a Kantian in philosophy. This would be an intricate argument for the Kantian critique of reason and the Scholastic counter-critique are highly subtle. But the method would be the same as before. I think I could show that his philosophical position rests on a defective analysis of the data of intellectual experience (which are his express concern, as a philosopher), and that the analysis is defective because it is commanded (as with Kant himself) by a pre-philosophical postulate, the rationalist a priorithe decision, antecedent to thought, that it will be Professor Greene who shall determine what reality is, and that reality shall not determine what Professor Greene thinks.
This is crudely put, because I must be brief. Actually, the analysis of the a priori is a highly delicate task; it raises the whole problem of the tradition within which a particular thinker standsa tradition that has "authority" over him (it is vain to suppose that any philosopher is immune from such authority). Perhaps chiefly in view here would be the pervasive modern idea of freedom with its individualistic overtonean idea that is the product not so much of a metaphysics as of a myth or a mood.
And it is from this critique of the rationalist a priori that I would go on to show that Professor Greene does not have to reject the principle of authority in Christianity. After reason has deployed all its resources of critical inquiry, the Roman Catholic hypothesis still remains open, not to be closed by reason unless reason ceases to be merely critical of evidence and becomes dogmatic about its own autonomy.
There is another principle of the immanent critique that could be applied to these systems. It consists in asking whither these systems lead, by the necessary workings of their inner dynamism or by necessary reaction. As a system that leads to the abyss, Dr. Smith's scientific monism must give one pause; for in what is at least the extremely tenable hypothesis that it is not necessary thus to plunge into the nihilism of despair, it is not easy to see why anyone should choose to do so, much less invite anyone else to take the leap. On the same lines, the social destructiveness of the Smithian hypothesis of a completely autonomous science, operating to ends in whose choosing the scientist, even as a man, abdicates responsibility, has already been demonstrated in the world. A healthy society can tolerate this kind of scientism, but in the sense that an otherwise healthy mental structure can tolerate a neurosis; if it is not too violent in its autonomous operations, that are not collineated with the purposes of the organism, its very neuroticism can be turned to use.
On the same critical principle, Professor Greene's system gives me pause. The trouble with it is, not that it isn't good, but that it isn't good enough. Professor Greene attempts a via media between the integral Christianity of Roman Catholicism and the extreme rationalism that goes by the name of secularism. But his system has the two inescapable defects of any via media. The first is the inherent tendency of a via media to bifurcate into the two extreme paths between which it seeks to cut. The reason for this is (to change the metaphor) that it attempts to hold opposites in equilibrium, not by the inner vital tension between the extremes themselves, which are affirmed fully and in their reciprocal orderly relationship (as in a system of polarities), but by applying the "lore of nicely calculated less or more", by careful concession to each extreme. The result is always an unstable equilibrium, an uneasy ambivalence.
The intellectual history of Kantianism is instructive here. Kant attempted a via media between Hume's skepticism and German pietism, by conceding to Hume that the objects of religion (God, the soul, its immortality, its freedom) are not objects of knowledge, and by conceding to the pietism of his youth that nevertheless these objects must be affirmed on practical grounds. "I must," he said," get rid of reason to make room for faith." He wanted to eat the pietist's pie and the skeptic's cakeand have them
both. The result was not an organic synthesis of reason and faith, but an artificial system in which both a rational and an irrational element were present, their incompatibilities not reconciled but screened from view by a rationalism that could at once deny the ability of reason to make religious affirmations that are rational, and affirm its need to make religious affirmations that are irrational. Time did the rest. Each of the unreconciled opposites worked itself out; the via media bifurcated, and then the two roads converged to a goal quite other than Kant's. The religious irrationalism worked itself out in Schleirmacher ("religion is mere feeling"), thence to irreligion ("I don't feel religious"), and thence full circle to an irreligious rationalism ("This world is my religion"). The rationalism worked itself out, through Fichte and Schelling, to the absolute idealism of Hegelthe Pandora's box whose lid was lifted by the "enlightened despots" (to release the Prussian nationalism with which Hitler did what we know) and by Marx (to release the dialectical materialism with which we are again gaining an increasing acquaintance). What began with critical reason ended with secularist myth.
The example is extreme, admittedly. My point, however, is that Kant's fatal error was the divorce of religion (ultimate truth and absolute moral values) from the order of rationally certain knowledge. This was indeed the stroke that constituted his via media: but this too was the thing that ultimately blew it up. It seems to me that Professor Greene (unless I misinterpret him) makes the same mistake. On a rationalist postulate, he denies the reach of reason to absolute truth, at the same time that he asserts that absolute truth must be "there." Is he playing Kant to some future Schleiermachers and Hegels (more likely Hegels; Schleiermachers are decidedly passé)? The fate of the Kantian noumenon (the ultimately intelligible thing that must be "there" but can't be known) is a hard one. Men say of it: "What good is itthis absolute Truth that, for all I know, I myself create? I do not need it. Here in the realm of the finite and fallible, the relative and contingent, the historically conditioned and culturally variable, I shall find all the truths, all the religion I need." This conclusion will be blatantly false, of course. However, ex absurdo sequitur quodlibet: it's a wise magician who knows what rabbits other people will pull out of his hat.
The second inherent difficulty with a via media is simply put: a via media is not a road that humanity can walk. An individual may indeed stay on it, or a group of individuals; but this is because of particularities of temperament or specially favored conditions of lifeone is cultured, say, and of disciplined intelligence, the finished humanist. (The Non-Kantians who kept to the Kantian via media under development of its rational aspects, were university men in England and Germany.) But man as such, the ordinary man in the ordinary life, human-
ity at large, cannot be expected to slither carefully across the yawning chasm that is the world's despairs on the religious tightrope of a nicely critical rationalism. If there is a way to God, it must be a way that all men can walk. It is not indeed a broad highway. But it cannot be a via media.
In conclusion, what would be my estimate of the alternatives here? Dr. Smith's scientific monism is, I say, a false creed, vacuous, socially destructive, andwhat is perhaps worse altogether unnecessary. But it is rough and tough, and in the finished militant form that Dr. Smith has not given it, it is total. My creed is likewise rough and tough and totalrough enough to cope with rude adversaries, tough enough to stand up to the demonic forces that are always stirring beneath the troubled surface of this world, and total enough to challenge the total claims of an organized atheistic humanism, reinforced with the resources of science, that comes against it with all the irrational power of a myth. I think sometimes that Newman had a prophetic moment when he spoke of the "stern encounter" that history would see, "when two real and living principles, simple entire and consistent, one in the Church, the other out of it, at length rush upon one another, contending not for names and words or half-views, but for elementary notions and distinctive moral characters." The two principles, he said, are "Catholic truth and Rationalism." They are not indeed today meeting for the first time; the encounter has been permanently engaged since the days of Celsus and Arius. But today it is, I think, particularly stern, now that rationalism has developed intellectual weapons and institutional armatures that would be the envy of the school of Antioch. And what I wonder is whether Professor Greene, who would occupy middle ground between these contending powers, does not risk being tramplednot by me, for he is greatly my ally, but by an enemy that is as contemptuous of his "relativist objectivism" as it is hostile to my "authoritarian absolutism."
(1)Editor Note: 1949f: "On the Necessity for Not Believing: A Roman Catholic Interpretation." The Yale Scientific Magazine. 23, no. 5 (February 1949): 11, 12, 22, 30, 32, 34). For the two other articles of this series, see Homer W. Smith, "Objectives and Objectivity in Science: A Naturalist Interpretation," pp. 7, 8, 16, 18, 28, and Theodore M. Greene, "The Middle of the Road: A Liberal Protestant Interpretation," pp. 9, 10, 20, 26, 28, both in The Yale Scientific Magazine 23 (February 1949).
(2)Editor Note: By the mid-1960s Murray sharply contrasted the atheisms that arise from nineteenth century scientism with twentieth century social atheism. In his 1964c: The Problem of God he wrote off scientism as a quaint historical relic (pp. 86-101), while he searched for moral and cognitional roots of Marxism and existentialism (101-21). Murray tended to lump purely contractual notions of government under the Enlightenment/scientism label (see his 1964d: "The Problem of Mr. Rawls' Problem"). In his 1967b: "The Death of God" he also located death of God theologies as within the nineteenth century, scientific state of the question, a problematic that has been transcended.