By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 29, 2011

43. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 932-948

Faith: Orthodoxy (Jacques Maritain, T.E. Hulme, Karl Barth); The State of Doubt (Paul Tillich)

Jacques Maritain: The Errors of Modern Rationalism 

This excerpt from The Dream of Descartes (1931) reflects Maritain's attempt to dethrone rationalism and to restore the metaphysics of Catholicism. He accuses Descartes of cutting corners in his logic, reasoning quickly to God's existence as a way of validating the scientific world-view: "Let us pay our respects to the Creator with despatch. And now, bring on the world.... Metaphysics is reduced to a justification of science; it has as its aim to make physics possible." 
Jacques Maritain, date unknown
Thus Cartesian evidence goes straight to mechanism. It mechanizes nature, it does violence to it; it annihilates everything which causes things to symbolize with the spirit, to partake of the genius of the Creator, to speak to us. The universe becomes dumb.
In Maritain's view, materialism -- "this practical domination of created force" -- "is a very great evil." He rejects the "anthropocentric naturalism" and "salvation by science and by reason.... As if reason by itself alone was capable of making men act reasonably and of securing the good of peoples! There is no worse delusion." 

The nineteenth century, however, saw a spiritual reawakening in the midst of the "wilderness" of rationalism. Poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud discovered it "through the experience of sin, of suffering and despair." But their rejection of reason was too radical a move, though rationalism has only itself to blame: "to have led so many reasoning animals around to a hatred of reason is another of rationalism's misdeeds." 

Disregarding the role of "feeling" in human life resulted in "a general drying-up in philosophy and culture ..., a drought for which romantic tears were later to provide only an insufficient remedy." Cartesian rationalism reduced humankind to "only thought." This kind of reductionism, Maritain argues, has continued: "In the end, Freud will turn up with his great sadistic lyricism and claim to reduce man to sexuality and the instinct of death." 
Here  is man then, the centre of the world, of a world inhuman in every respect, pressing in upon him. Nothing in human life is any longer made to man's measure, to the rhythm of the human heart. The forces he has unleashed, split him asunder.
We need to return to "reason aided by grace," to "an ascetic morality" that will counter the "anti-ascetic, exclusively technological" morality imposed on us by rationalism. "What remains of man? A consumer crowned by science. This is the final gift, the twentieth century gift of the Cartesian reform." Science is not without its benefits, but they must be "mastered, subjected by force to the good of man, that is to say entirely and rigorously subordinated to religious ethics and made instruments of an ascetic morality." 

T.E. Hulme: The Modern Confusion of Categories
T.E. Hulme, date unknown

Hulme's conservatism is on display in this essay, "Humanism and the Religious Attitude" (published posthumously in 1924). It centers on the problem of the discontinuity in nature, which the materialist approach to nature ignores. We constantly tend to think that the discontinuities in nature are only apparent, and that a fuller investigation would reveal the underlying continuity." But the discontinuity, Hulme asserts, is real, and ignoring it has led to "a whole mass of confused thinking in religion and ethics." 

Hulme posits that "reality is divided into three regions, separated from one another by absolute divisions, by real discontinuities.
  1. The inorganic world, of mathematical and physical science,
  2. the organic world, dealt with by biology, psychology and history, and 
  3. the world of ethical and religious values."

The first and third, Hulme observes, "have both an absolute character, and knowledge about them can legitimately be called absolute knowledge. The intermediate region of life is, on the other hand, essentially relative; it is dealt with by loose sciences like biology, psychology and history." (Hulme's exclusion of biology from the physical sciences is representative of the state of biological science in his day.) 

Hulme argues that there is no essential bridge between any of the three categories, and cites Nietzsche and Bergson as philosophers who "clearly recognized the chasm between the two worlds of life and matter." 
But the same movement that recognizes the existence of the first absolute chasm (between the physical and the vital), proceeds to ignore the second, that between biology and the ethical, religious values.... Biology is not theology, nor can God be defined in terms of "life" or "progress." Modernism entirely misunderstands the nature of religion.
The humanism of the twentieth century, Hulme says, is inadequate to deal with the unifying character of religious belief. The result is a proliferation of "bastard phenomena": "Romanticism in literature, Relativism in ethics, Idealism in philosophy, and Modernism in religion." Hulme, who called romanticism "spilt religion," accuses it of confusing "human and divine things, but not clearly separating them." And so his aim is "not only to destroy all these bastard phenomena, but also to recover the real significance of many things which it seems absolutely impossible for the 'modern' mind to understand." 

Karl Barth: The One and Only God 
Karl Barth in 1955
In The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (1938), Barth takes as his text a phrase from the Scottish Confession: "We confesse and acknawledge ane onelie God." The phrase, he says, "does not mean that God alone exists. It does not deny the world."
The world exists, but the world does not exist alone. And if the world does not exist alone, because it exists through God and therefore as having God behind, above and before it, as Him without whom it would not exist, so God does not exist alone, because the world exists through Him. It exists through Him, Who, without the world, would yet be in himself no less what He is. The difference in the relation between them is this -- God exists along with the world as its free creator, whereas the world exists along with God as the creation founded on His freedom. 
This amounts to an acknowledgment that the world is not itself God: It is "limited and made relative." It also puts humanism in perspective: "It is man's self-assertion which is the source of the possible or actual denial of the one and only God -- not perhaps in the form that man denies the existence of the one and only God but very simply in the form that he identifies himself with the one and only God." It is a recognition of the limits of the human: 
The modern world has failed to hear the warning of the Reformed confession precisely at this point and has thought fit to exchange the mediæval conception of the world as geocentric for the much more naïve conception of the world as anthropocentric.
Barth's orthodoxy kicks in when he sides with the confession's attempt to "combat ... also the gods and godheads of all the human ideologies, and mythologies, philosophies and religions." Subordinate to God, in Barth's view, are humankind's "ideas and principles, points of view scientific, ethical and æsthetic, axioms, self-evident truths social and political, certainties conservative and revolutionary," devotion to which "actually crystallises into mythologies and religions." (America, with her devotion to truths that we hold to be self-evident, would be one of those religions.) "To recognise the one and only God means to make all these systems relative." Barth also proceeds with a statement that today would prove most inflammatory: "The God of Mohammed is an idol like all other idols, and it is an optical illusion to characterise Christianity along with Islam as a 'monotheistic' religion." 

For Barth, this one and only God, though he is something other than man, "can be known ... in human form and therefore in a way that is visible and audible for us, i.e. as the eternal Son of God in the flesh, the one and only God in Whom we have been called to believe, Jesus Christ." 

Paul Tillich: The Meaning of Meaninglessness 

Paul Tillich, date unknown
Tillich's The Courage to Be (1952) is a statement of "Christian existentialism."
Every analyst of present-day Existentialist philosophy, art, and literature can show their ambiguous structure: the meaninglessness which drives to despair, a passionate denunciation of this situation, and the successful or unsuccessful attempt to take the anxiety of meaninglessness into the courage to be as oneself.

Existentialism threatens "collectivist (Nazi, Communist) as well as conformist (American democratic) groups," Tillich asserts, because it reveals "the neurotic defense mechanisms of the anti-Existentialist desire for traditional safety." Christianity, Tillich says, "should decide for truth against safety." Because "the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness is ... the anxiety of our period," Christian theology must turn toward dealing with this anxiety. 
The decisive event which underlies the search for meaning and the despair of it in the 20th century is the loss of God in the 19th century. Feuerbach explained God away in terms of the infinite desire of the human heart; Marx explained him away in terms of an ideological attempt to rise above the given reality; Nietzsche as a weakening of the will to live. The result is the pronouncement "God is dead," and with him the whole system of values and meanings in which one lived. This is felt both as a loss and as a liberation. It drives one either to nihilism or to the courage which takes nonbeing into itself.
It is this courage that Tillich valorizes and converts into a Christian virtue: "The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of nonbeing. Even in the despair about meaning being affirms itself through us. The act of accepting meaninglessness is in itself a meaningful act. It is an act of faith." Every negative presupposes a positive: "We could not even think 'being' without a double negation: being must be thought as the negation of the negation of being." 
Wherever philosophers or theologians have spoken of the divine blessedness they have implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) spoken of the anxiety of finitude which is eternally taken into the blessedness of the divine infinity. The infinite embraces itself and the finite, the Yes includes itself and the No which it takes into itself, blessedness comprises itself and the anxiety of which it is the conquest.
So the courage to be, to live in spite of the absence of meaning and the awareness of death, is "an act of mystical or personal or absolute faith." 

There are no valid arguments for the "existence" of God, but there are acts of courage in which we affirm the power of being, whether we know it or not.... The courage to take the anxiety of meaninglessness upon oneself is the boundary line up to which the courage to be can go. Beyond it is mere nonbeing. Within it all forms of courage are re-established in the power of the God above the God of theism. The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.

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