The Prophets and the Open Mind
Being expert neither in the field of science nor of religion, we are relieved of the responsibility of discussing a theme whose treatment has suffered from everything but neglect. It is possible, however, to treat the well-worn problem of science versus religion in all its familiar aspects purely as history and without ever leaving the ancient world, for not only were the people of late antiquity even more modern and sophisticated than those of our own world, but they thought of themselves as being very scientific, and they were. Long before and after Lucretius, the intellectuals insisted on a religious belief that would square exactly with everyday experience, a thoroughly common-sense and practical religion, a scientific religion in which there was no place for any nonsense about the supernatural, that is, for anything that lay beyond their own immediate experience. The fashionable religion of the educated classes was a sort of social gospel; its attitude to the universe that of nil admirari—"don't get worked up about anything." The only problems worth troubling about were the social problem of getting along together and the individual problem of making money and enjoying life as much as possible—all the rest was "Old Wives' Tales."
Such a philosophy of life may be very well in its way, but let us not call it religion. Not long ago there flourished a Soviet poet, Vadim Shershenevich, who demanded "in the name of modernity, or futurity, the liberation of words from the burden of meaning. 'Free the words from their sense and contents [he cried], which have stuck like chewed paper about the word's pure image. . . . There is not, and should not be, any sense or contents in art.'" 1 To attribute meaning to words is a stuffy, quaint, narrow, old-fashioned, bourgeois prejudice; yet poor Shershenevich himself could not preach his doctrine of liberating all words from any meaning except by using words that still had meaning. Just so there are ministers who would give us religion freed from the burden of the supernatural, liberated from any old-fashioned involvements with anything beyond our everyday experience, but this doctrine of religion, with religion left out, they can convey only by using a religious vocabulary which taken in the denatured sense in which they want it to be taken would have no meaning at all. Like Shershenevich, they appeal for the abandonment of the only thing that gives their appeal any force. Nothing has been more often defined than religion, and after all the philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, and sentimentality are accounted for and claimed by their proper practitioners, the irreducible religious element of religion remains—the concern with things which are not of this world.2
The Barthian school, according to Mr. Rufus Jones, "insist[s] that God must be 'an absolute Other.' We belittle Him and drag Him down from His true being, they say, when we say anything about Him in terms of our poor, thin, finite selves. There is nothing in us or about us through which He can be interpreted. No piling up of our empty zeros will even start on the road to infinity. Earth had no clue to offer, history had no word to say that gives any light on the exalted theme of God. We belong in the order of 'nature' and He is utterly supernatural." Now no one will accuse Mr. Jones of being stuffy or fundamentalist—none of your supernatural religions for him! Yet this attitude of the Barthians is too much even for him to take; it might all be perfectly true, he tells us, but true or not, it cannot possibly be called Christian or religion: "If nothing of the divine nature can be expressed in the human," he retorts, "then the incarnation of God in Christ has no real meaning or significance, and nothing that we say about God is anything more than a flatus vocis, an empty breath of sound. Religion once more withdraws from earth and becomes an irrationality—a mere surd—and is therefore to be left behind."3 Jones sees the folly of the whole thing—when it is carried to its logical conclusions. But has he any right to take Barth to task simply for taking his own liberal dogma farther than he himself is willing to go? Barth has put God out of the reckoning; in the name of the Bible and religion we cannot do that, says Jones. Yet he and the whole liberal school have long since struck the prophets and the miracles and the devil from the record and made of the resurrection a mere flatus vocis, though the Bible insists on them just as emphatically as it does on the incarnation. Mr. Jones wants to keep an open mind—up to a point. He chuckles and chides at those quaint reactionaries who won't carry open-mindedness as far as he thinks it should be carried, but rolls a scandalized eye and clucks a warning tongue at those foolish radicals who carry it farther than that. The whole question turns out to be not whether one is going to be open-minded or not—Jones himself is not open-minded in the matter of the incarnation, and the Barthians have their minds completely made up on the unsearchability of God—but at what point one chooses to draw the line. And even in the case of these two extreme liberals one cannot help noting that where each man is strong and positive is precisely in the area in which he has made up his mind, i.e., where he is not open-minded.
Is an open mind, then, a negative thing—an empty mind? It is, unless it is a searching mind. An oyster has few prejudices—in the field of astronomy it has, we may safely say, absolutely none. Are we then to congratulate the oyster for its open-mindedness? A first-rate and very broad-minded scientist, J. B. S. Haldane, defines prejudice as "an opinion held without examining the evidence."4 Prejudice does not consist in having made up one's mind—in defending an opinion with fervor and determination—as too many liberals seem to think; it consists in forming an opinion before all the evidence has been considered. This means that freedom from prejudice whether in the field of science or any other field requires a tremendous lot of work—one cannot be unprejudiced without constant and laborious study of evidence; the open mind must be a searching mind. The person who claims allegiance to science in his thinking or who is an advocate of the open mind has let himself in for endless toil and trouble.
But what has happened? Those who have called themselves liberals in religion have accepted science with open arms precisely because they believe that excuses them from any toil at all. For them to have an open mind means to accept without question, and without any personal examination of evidence, whatever the prevailing opinions of the experts may prescribe. This is what Haldane calls prejudice. Evolution was hailed as the new gospel not because it raised new questions or spurred some men to new searches, but because for the man in the street and the lazy student, as well as for the people who wrote books for them, it meant the end of all searching and the end of all doubt. Here was the answer to everything, and no open-minded nonsense about it. I recently reviewed a two-volume work on ancient history in which the author had obviously not bothered to read more than a fraction of his sources. Why should he bother? By the evolutionary rule-of-thumb he could reconstruct the whole broad course of history with confidence and ease, oblivious to the disquieting fact that the documents, had he taken the trouble to read them, would have told him a very different story. Evolution was the conclusion on which he based his facts. The doctrine, however useful in other fields, has had a crippling, even a paralyzing effect on humanistic studies, where its ready-made answers to everything have spared students the pains and denied them the experience of finding out for themselves what the texts actually say.
In the field of religion especially, the actual study of evidence constantly rebuffs the evolutionary prejudices of the scholars, who feel they cannot do without this precious time-and-thought-saver. It is a "well-known law of the history of liturgy," for example, "that the development . . . has led from pluriformity to uniformity, and not the reverse." 5 Again, scholars have searched long and in vain for an Urtext, a pure, simple original, to the Septuagint, unaware, Paul Kahle points out, that "a standard text of a translation is always found at the end of the development, never at the beginning," where one would expect it.6 Any college student can tell you that the organization of the Christian church must have passed from primitive, loosely coordinated beginnings to an increasingly integrated and effective system. If the evidence makes the mistake of proving the opposite, the evidence must be dealt with; accordingly, to quote Schermann, "every letter of Paul in which such a fixed organization [of the church] is implied is, in spite of its linguistic affinity to other letters which are recognized as genuine, and in spite of the close identity of its content and thought with theirs, condemned without mercy and overwhelmed with charges of interpolation." 7 This is not a rare but a typical example of the way the school of "scientific" scholarship operates. As another example, the unfolding pattern of history requires that the idea of the Messiah shall have first arisen in Israel after the Exile. But there are some significant preexilic passages in the Old Testament that refer to the Messiah. What do the scholars do with these? They simply declare them to be interpolations, and then remove the offensive things from the text: The result is a reformed text which brilliantly confirms the theory on which it was reformed. They produce a new text that is carefully tailored to their theory, and then point to that text as proof that the theory is correct! 8 Incredible as it may seem, this cheap and easy circular method became the standard procedure and the indispensable tool of the higher critics, who operated on the principle that, while to ignore evidence is a sign of prejudice, to alter and adjust it to fit one's preconceptions is a mark of brilliance and ingenuity.
This may be the result of trying to apply the scientific method in an area where judgment must always remain largely subjective. And yet one wonders when one contemplates the behavior of the scientists themselves. In 1953 at a meeting of the Geological Society of London, the famous Piltdown Man was shown to be a hoax. It was not only a hoax, we are now told, but it was such an extremely clumsy hoax that it is hard to see how it ever fooled anybody. Only one thing can explain the solemn acceptance and high honors accorded this battered skull by the highest authorities for over half a century, and that is an overpowering desire, a fierce determination to accept as genuine whatever looked promising in an area where evidence was badly needed. The news has now leaked out that the November meeting "broke up into a series of fist fights, so strong was the feeling on both sides of the question. The fracas resulted in the expulsion of several members of the dignified scientific body."9 "Strong feeling," says the news dispatch. It was wishful thinking that saw priceless evidence in the Piltdown skull and then defended it with a passion that did not draw the line at bloody noses and black eyes. Where is the cool, impartial, objective detachment which we have been taught is the badge and authority of science? Well, there is nothing wrong with behaving as average human beings—unless, of course, one claims, as these men do, to have risen above that sort of thing. I recall to mind certain professors of natural science who could not give a lecture without taking potshots at foolish and gullible people who accepted things on faith. These men with monotonous persistence fire millions of rounds at the opposition, but when the opposition proposes to present a few of their duds for our inspection, they instantly appeal to our humanity and insist that it is not sporting to advertise the chinks in their armor.
Modern liberalism, like modern education, goes on the theory that the scientific attitude can become the possession of every man, woman, and child in the democracy. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The only way you can get the scientific attitude is to be a scientist. The only way one can know what mathematics is about, according to Courant and Robbins, is actually to work problems—lots of hard problems—in mathematics. One cannot acquire the attitudes of a painter or a teacher or a musician or a zoologist or a tap dancer without doing actual work in those fields. A really scientific attitude cannot be imparted by lectures about it or pocket books or popular articles that glamorize it or survey courses that play with it; the masses can embrace science only as many people embrace religion—in name only. The real enemy of true science is the glib and superficial lip service to science that goes under the name of liberalism. And the same holds true for religion. There is no substance to the easy and sentimental "religion of man" by which the human race was expected to lift itself to infinite heights by a gentle tugging on its own boot-straps. The mathematician Gödel has demonstrated, or at least has proposed to demonstrate, that "no logical system can ever prove that it itself is a perfect system in the sense that it may not contain concealed self-contradictions. . . . This means that the human intelligence can never be sure of itself; it is not . . . capable of unlimited perfectibility, as is so often fondly imagined."10 What is more, even that ultimate rock of refuge, common sense, has become a rapidly melting ice floe. "The sort of phenomena with which quantum theory is concerned," writes Professor Bridgman, "teach[es] the same lesson as relativity theory, namely, that the world is not constructed according to the principles of common sense." Actually, he reminds us, "we acquire our perceptual abilities only by arduous practice. Yet we take our space and time with deadly seriousness. . . . Perhaps when we learn to take them less seriously we will not be so bedeviled by the logical contradictions . . . about the beginning or end of time or the boundaries of space."11
It is time we came to the moral of our discussion—the religious part of it. Schoolmen—ancient, medieval, and modern—have persisted in proclaiming to the world that there is aside and apart from that knowledge which has come to the human race by revelation and which is an object of religious faith, another type of knowledge—real, tangible, solid, absolute, perfectly provable knowledge—the knowledge (according to the prevailing taste of the century) of philosophy, science, or common sense. The exponents of this knowledge, we are told, are impartial and detached in their searches and their conclusions. I have met many students who have been convinced that anyone who experiences any doubt regarding the scriptures has only to remove his troubled mind from old legends and dubious reports to realms of clear light and absolute certainty where doubt does not exist. Significantly enough, this gospel of hope is almost never preached by scientists but enjoys its greatest vogue in departments of humanities and social science. What the true scientists of our day are telling us, as they have told us before, is that no such realm, no such intellectual Hesperides, is known to them. One never knows which of our most cherished and established scientific beliefs may be next to go by the board.12 A brief illustration may be in order.
If there is anything at all on which the overwhelming consensus of New Testament scholarship claims to have reached the highest certitude, it is the nature of the gospel of John, a relatively late production that shows clear and unmistakable marks of Hellenistic influence. Professor Albright reminds us that the term rabbi used by John was seen to be a hopeless anachronism, that the personal names in the gospel were obviously "fictitious and had been chosen for specific purposes," and that John's inaccurate topography showed his ignorance of the local setting of the time of Christ. Yet the discoveries of the last few years, Albright observes, have shown that the experts were completely wrong on all these points.13 Most recently, the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows us that "John, far from being the creation of Hellenistic Christianity, has exceedingly close ties with sectarian Judaism, and may prove to be the most 'Jewish' of the Gospels."14 Let us not be hard on the specialists. How could they be expected to know what lay hidden in the sand? But that is just another way of asking, how could they be expected ever to know the answers? Until the final returns are in, no one is in a position to make final pronouncements, and as long as science continues to progress, the final returns will remain at the other end of a future of wonders and surprises. In the world of things, we must forever keep an open mind, because we simply don't know the answers. But we are not claiming that because science does not have the ultimate answers, religion does have them. What we do claim is that the words of the prophets cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity.
1. Quoted by Alexander Kaun, Soviet Poems and Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943), 15.
2. A classic treatment of the subject is Lecture II in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Longmans, Green, 1952), 27ff.
3. Rufus Jones, Pathways to the Reality of God (New York: Macmillan, 1936), 48—49. Jones appears to be dealing only with the early works of Barth.
4. Arnold Lunn and John Haldane, Science and the Supernatural (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), 394.
5. Cornelius Bouman, "Variants in the Introduction to the Eucharistic Prayer," Vigiliae Christianae 4 (1950): 114.
6. Paul Kahle, The Cairo Geniza (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), 175ff.
7. Theodor Schermann, Die allgemeine Kirchenordnung frühchristliche Liturgien und kirchliche Überlieferung (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1915), 2:143.
8. See generally, August von Gall, Basileia tou Theou (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1926), 1—47.
9. "Piltdown Hoax Clumsy, Fresh Evidence Shows," Science Newsletter 66 (July 17, 1954): 40.
10. F. Bridgman, "Science and Common Sense," Scientific Monthly 79 (July 1954): 35—36.
11. Ibid., 36.
12. An enlightening remark by Whitehead on this theme may be found in Lucien Price, "To Live Without Certitude," Atlantic Monthly 193 (March 1954): 58.
13. William F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Baltimore: Pelican, 1949), 244ff.
14. Frank Moore Cross, "The Manuscripts of the Dead Sea Caves," Biblical Archaeologist 17 (February 1954): 3.