Site note: One does not have to agree with Appleyard's underlying
belief system that generated his position in
order to opine that this is one of the finest, most insightful, and most passionately eloquent chapters ever written.
When Appleyard unlimbers his prodigious and insightful familiarity with
history, philosophy and literature, it is a marvel to behold, and it DOES help us understand the present.
I recommend that it be read and re-read carefully until the reader understands the
implication, scope and importance of what Appleyard is saying. As he
tells this story, paints this picture, he truly agonizes, and finally says, "In my
version the story is a sad one, a long tale of decline and defeat, of a
struggle to hold back the cruel pessimism of science."
While it is true that science has replaced and/or
marginalized the traditional
religions, much of their longstanding teachings, and our self-identity based on the
traditional paradigm, the question is begging to be asked, "Why should we mourn over
the loss of a system of thinking and belief that is false, in denial,
and has failed to deliver what it promised?" Especially when there is the
very real possibility and opportunity to pick up the pieces and this
time build on a better, firmer foundation, on rock instead of sand. Building on ancient
mythology was always going to lead to disappointment.
And there IS one
conclusion that we can come to that eliminates any sorrow over the
measured victory of science that he so decries. As to the loss of our
romanticized concept of nature, IF we understand that
God—the real God—did NOT design and create the predatory competition
system that we call "nature" then we don't need
to care that science intellectually rules over this domain. We do not
expect to find more than a dim reflection of God and his imprint in it,
and we need not be disappointed because it is not the truth that is
vitiated, but merely lame "religion".
One simple fact should be kept in mind while reading the
chapter below. As a study or inquiry into the physical world, "Science" has
un-tethered itself from what our forefathers thought and taught; and this
has spawned not only huge gains in "livability" on earth, but the very
industry and medium within which Appleyard operates. "Religion" has not done
likewise, and is still clinging to ancient mythology that comes down to us
in the form of sacred writings. See: Why the
Understanding the Present
by Bryan Appleyard
CHAPTER 4 DEFENDING THE FAITH
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! —Matthew Arnold]
THE STORY I HAVE BEEN TELLING is a simple
one. It is, in a slightly more elaborate form, the same story as the
primitive tribe introduced to penicillin. It is the story of a
culture—our culture—being progressively overwhelmed and transformed by science.
All the subtleties of Descartes, Hume and
Kant are, at heart, merely different ways of confronting this invasion.
Their solutions are complex, refined and difficult because they have to
be. The challenge of science is a challenge to all that we are and all
that we know. The response to such a challenge might finally be very
simple. But the difficult process of developing such a solution cannot
avoid surveying and analyzing the full complexity of human life.
The official, popularizing versions
of the story are very different from mine. According to them the story
is heroic, a great human struggle to free ourselves of the shackles of
old illusions and confront the one certain truth that it is our
particular destiny to grasp. Science, in this view, is a triumphant
human progress toward real (P. 75) knowledge of the real world.
This is the official view of the schoolroom and the television
spectacular. For me it is nonsensical propaganda
which conceals all the important issues. In my version the
story is a sad one, a long tale of decline and defeat, of a struggle to
hold back the cruel pessimism of science.
The key to this struggle, it cannot be
said too often, is the way in which science forces us to separate our
values from our knowledge of the world. Thanks to Newton we cannot
discover goodness in the mechanics of the heavens, thanks to Darwin we
cannot find it in the phenomenon of
life and thanks to Freud we cannot find it in ourselves. The
struggle is to find a new basis for goodness, purpose and meaning.
[Commentary] The above paragraph actually describes a GOOD development, not
one to bemoan. It is well past time that we find a different basis for
goodness, purpose and meaning than the ones listed above.
The pain of this separation of knowledge
and value can be understood through
the different ways in which we contemplate nature,
because it is from nature that we long for the reassurance that
we cannot have. In an essay entitled
Nonmoral Nature, the contemporary American science writer,
paleontologist and biologist Stephen
Jay Gould, an eloquent defender of the hard truth of hard
science, discusses the strange case of the ichneumon wasp. During its
larval stage this creature lives as a parasite, feeding on the bodies
of, usually, caterpillars. The female adult injects her eggs into the host
and victim via a long thin tube known as an ovipositor. Some varieties
of ichneumon lay the eggs on the surface, so, as a precaution
against them being dislodged, they simultaneously inject a paralyzing
toxin to prevent the host from moving during the process of incubating
and then feeding their offspring. To keep the food fresh, this toxin
paralyzes but does not kill. For the same reason larvae deposited
inside the caterpillar follow a particular eating pattern designed
to consume inner organs and tissue in such a way that the host
will continue to live for as long as the larvae require.
Gould points out how the life of the ichneumons captured the
moral crisis of the nineteenth century. The very
the cruel calculation of the wasps' behavior seemed to
deny the possibility of a benevolent
universe. It was one thing to eat your prey, quite another to contrive
to keep it alive while you did so.
The Victorians attempted to be objective about this terrible spectacle.
They made serious attempts not to see nature in terms of human
morality. They wished to distance the
horror by scientific objectivity. But, as Gould points out, they found
themselves obliged to employ the language of human drama simply
to tell the story. Our (P. 76)
words are loaded with values, and they seem able to trap us into
involvement with the fate of the caterpillar.
"We seem," comments Gould, "to be caught
in the mythic structures of our own cultural sagas, quite unable, even
in our basic descriptions, to use any other language than the metaphors of battle
and conquest. We cannot render this
corner of natural history as anything but a story, combining the
themes of grim horror and fascination
and usually ending not so much with pity for the caterpillar as
with admiration for the efficiency of the ichneumon."
A hundred years later our language is
closer to final defeat by science. We do not pine for goodness in nature
as passionately as the Victorians. We have found ways of softening its
[Commentary] Although there are aspects that are wonderful, complex,
beautiful and amazing, the basic life survival system of nature is simply
one of predatory competition. It is mere moral and spiritual apathy that has
allowed us to continue to expect to find more "goodness in nature" than is
really there. Do we not deliver insult by thinking that God is the agency
that designed such a system?
I recently visited the Natural History
Museum in London. Completed in 1881, it is a building that stands as an
emblem of the high Victorian belief in
a scientific understanding of the world. Constructed
in a flamboyant Romanesque style with a vast, barrel-vaulted
interior space, now occupied by a dinosaur skeleton, it asserts
the continuity of the scientific culture. It is a monument to the
English legacy of Francis Bacon, a storehouse of the data that will
underpin inductive truth.
Now, of course, the confidence that inspired this building
has been lost.
The museum has been modernized. Mute, stuffed beasts
were once enough: their irreducible presence among so many thousands
of others was sufficient wonder for the Victorian sensibility.
But all that is slowly giving way to hotter, sweeter thrills. Now there
are complex, interactive displays
designed to teach the basics of biology and zoology to children
and impatient, uncultivated adults. Buttons can be pressed, screens
watched and models manipulated. Amid
this carnival of clutter and diversity, one noisy, colorful exhibit
is called "Creepy-Crawlies," and there I found a giant model of
the female ichneumon wasp frozen in
the act of injecting her eggs into a caterpillar.
A Victorian horror story has become a
modern celebration of intriguing diversity. Do not feel sorry for the
caterpillar, the model seems to be telling us, applaud the wasp for its ingenuity. It is no
good weeping human tears over inhuman nature.
But what about faith? How did religion itself cope with
this terrible onslaught, this
[Commentary] Religion has coped the same way that it always has and
always will, i.e., by stressing "faith" instead of understanding and
intellectual responsibility; through its formal organizations and
institutional structures; by indoctrinating its children, by doubling
down on the tradition, the rites and ceremonies, the liturgy, the
symbolism, and the idolatry that appeals to the spiritual malaise that
infects the general population,
Perhaps the questions were not worth
asking. Perhaps we should confront the faithless universe with a new
heroism. That was the (P. 77)
attitude of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He contemplated the
refinements of the great Enlightenment philosophers' attempts to
forge a new definition of truth and
value and a new defense of
religion. He lost his temper. He called Kant "a catastrophic spider."
The Konigsberg ascetic had woven his metaphysic out of the Enlightenment's
epistemological crisis and trapped us all like flies.
Nietzsche regarded the entire effort
with grandiose disgust, calling both Leibniz—the prophet of
"pre-established harmony"—and Kant—the supreme defender of the moral nature of man—the "two greatest
impediments to the intellectual integrity of Europe."
All their metaphysics, he thought, were
no more than a craven attempt to save
mankind's cowardly humility and its God. But, in
the face of the colossal structure of
our own knowledge, we did not
need some crabbed shuffling of the theological pack. God was dead.
But our new knowledge revealed
not that we were impotent, but that we could become gods in his
place. It would, Nietzsche thought,
take us two centuries to face this transformation in all its aspects.
But, once we had faced it, we would be free. The long birth of this
new age, however, would result in unprecedented strife.
Nietzsche's own work signaled the onset of labor.
"There will be
wars," he wrote, "such as there have never yet
been on earth. Only after me will there
be grand politics on earth."
What was disgusting
to Nietzsche's ambitious nineteenth-century
mind was the attempt to preserve the Christian fabric against
the onslaught of Enlightenment knowledge.
The idealism which had allowed Kant to slip the bonds of material
reality was an undignified retreat of the European soul. The effort appeared cowardly, dishonest,
deluded. Even Luther was condemned. His rebellion was no
more than a feeble attempt to save
rather than overthrow the Church. Protestantism and idealism were
no more than absurd and contrived defensive systems.
"The lie of
the ideal," Nietzsche wrote, "has hitherto been the
curse on reality;
through it mankind itself has become mendacious
and false down to its deepest instincts—to the point of
worshipping the inverse
values to those which alone could guarantee it prosperity, future, the
exalted right to a future."
[Commentary] "The lie of the ideal," Oh really! How
ridiculous can it be that we think that there should be a God that deals in the
ideal and offers that to us? We can take Nietzsche's point ONLY if we
mistakenly confuse or conflate what traditional religion is saying about God and his plan, with
Our real destiny ought to be the cold,
heroic confrontation with truth—"Philosophy, as I have hitherto
understood and lived it, is a
voluntary living in ice and high mountains . . ." We were to
accept the role implicit in the genius of Newton. We were to
become (P. 79) gods,
self-creating and self-defining, free at last from the choking
mythologies of the past.
This was the heroic,
individualistic response to the imaginative
crisis inspired by the scientific
project. It represented an attempt to
create a cruel, hard, aristocratic religion out of atheism and the
lonely truth. New values would be heroically forged by great
souls. This was all that ultimately mattered. Not all men were irreducible
ends in themselves, as Kant had dreamed, only the chosen few.
solution was, in effect, to start again now that
the values and mythologies of the past
had been so thoroughly discredited.
It was an influential response that was to wash ashore in our own
century in any number of disguises. Today Nietzsche has
been both liberalized and turned into
the precursor of Nazism. Neither is quite fair. His role was
simply to see the problem with such
tortured clarity that it could never again be ignored. In his final
years he descended into insanity.
But, for most
thinkers, starting again represented a kind of defeat.
It meant throwing away the whole history of religious insight and truth.
Perhaps the more sober, saner response was to find new ways of defending
the ancient faith. The strength of this approach
lies in the obvious human inadequacy of
science. On the one hand it had destroyed religion's foundations; yet,
on the other, it refused to provide the kind of answers religion could
offer. We could have the truth or we
could have a place in the world but we could not have both.
[Commentary] "Perhaps the more sober, saner response was to find new
ways of defending the ancient faith. The strength of this approach lies
in the obvious human inadequacy of science." It is amazing that Appleyard
could still suggest this, but his last phrase here is true. That is just about
the ONLY strength of that approach.
Science was the
lethally dispassionate search for truth in the
world whatever its
meaning might be; religion was the passionate
search for meaning whatever the truth might be. Science
can lay a
claim to a meaning in the sense of establishing causality, and religion
could claim truth in the sense of a transcendent order. But
science's meaning does not answer the
question Why? And religion's truth had no scientific relevance.
[Commentary] "religion was the passionate search for meaning whatever
the truth might be." Doing this—if the truth does not resonate with
our nature, our innermost souls—is irrational and insane,
but at least Appleyard has correctly characterized it.
Above all, the
division between truth and meaning persists, for
those are the way
the terms are defined in the modern world: truth
and meaning were severed by knowledge.
That is what we think we know. Draw no
conclusions from the private life of the ichneumon wasp, just
celebrate that fact that we know about it.
The difficulty of this position produced,
in the early nineteenth century, an
intense, romantic suffering. In 1819 the English romantic poet
John Keats wrote: " 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'—that is (P.
all / Ye know on earth, and all ye
need to know." He wrote it precisely because it was
not true in the world of the early nineteenth
century. It was rhetoric or wishful
thinking. And, in Keats's use of
the word "all," we can feel the
pressure of the romantic revolt
against the cosmic hubris of
scientific man. We did not need his truths, we did not need more
than the synonymity of beauty and truth. To say that his motto
was all that we needed to know was to
demand a new innocence, a rest from the turmoil of our knowledge.
It did not, however, offer a program of action other than perpetual
Yet a program was
required if anything, other than science, was
As if seeing into the future, Kant had
defined a way of defending God
against Darwin and Freud. He had seen the dangers of attempting
to carve out some specialized niche for him amid the truths of this
world—science would only come along and mock those as it had
mocked the physics of transubstantiation and the cosmologies of geocentrism. To define God in the world was to condemn him to a
permanent retreat in the face of the rigor of scientific analysis. The
world of the senses was at the mercy of science.
[Commentary] Herein lies the real challenge and the real solution, to
define God in a MORE meaningful and adequate way than either through nature, the
world OR through tradition.
But, in expelling
him from the world of the senses, Kant had
created a figure far removed from the
immanent and effective God of the
Middle Ages. Instead of the master of the benign fabric which
placed a farm worker in the stained
glass of a cathedral whose totality
was an architectural vision of the intellectual unity of creation,
there was the infinitely more subtle revelation of God in the
deep structure of the human soul.
The question was—and is—whether religion
can survive on the basis of such subtlety, whether a material world
without miracles or meaning can still
sustain the faith. And, in turn, that question is dependent on
what we mean by religion and what constitutes faith.
[Commentary] Sustain the faith in what? Traditional religion and its
constructs? I think not! That is unworthy of us.
First, it is clear
that there is something about the human condition
that demands a dimension we call religious, whatever it might
be. Particular faiths have come and gone, but nothing has
ever displaced the religious
presence itself from human life. It has always accompanied men and their
usually attempted to relate their spiritual systems
to the material
experience of the world. In doing so they have depended on the
conviction that value and meaning can be found in
the facts of the world—precisely the
conviction that science has so (P 80) successfully defied and apparently
disproved. It is, therefore, idle to
pretend, as many do, that there is no contradiction between religion
and science. Science contradicts religion as surely as Judaism
contradicts Islam—they are absolutely and irresolvably conflicting
views. Unless, that is, science is obliged to change its fundamental
[Commentary] So what if value and meaning CANNOT be found in the
facts of the world? Why would we even continue to look there?
In early societies the cycles of
agriculture produced transcendent explanations of the changes of the
seasons or, most commonly, worship of the sun. Science may tell modern
man that such repetitive rhythms are
all but immune to immediate failure; the sun will rise,
the seasons will pass because of the relative stability of the solar
system as a whole. But, once,
they appeared as precarious as the life
of man himself. So precious and so
mysterious were the rhythms of
life that their continuance was a
matter of daily anxiety. In the case
of the Aztecs, for example, the sun
god was obliged to defend himself against enemies every night,
so the coming of the dawn was a
constant uncertainty and its daily appearance a military triumph
against unspeakable odds.
[Commentary] Here Appleyard displays his ignorance of ancient Solar
System upheaval and planetary catastrophe. The heavenly cycles were NOT
stable and ancient man had learned this the hard way. Now, we have buried
this lesson in
our collective amnesia and denial.
But religions which
still clung tightly to such natural cycles
could also be seen to
be tied closely to the particular human societies from which they sprang. They were local, specific
faiths. They did not aspire to be
Theories of Everything.
A change began in 1200 B.C. when Moses
formalized Judaic theology. This was
the first of a number of new and more inclusive systems that were
to spring up around the world. Unlike their forerunners,
these were the beliefs of sophisticated people who could
remove themselves for a time from the
urgent and exclusive demands
of agriculture. There was a surplus of intellectual energy
available to contemplate the whole of life. The new systems had in
common a complete explanation of all human life and history and, above
all, they were rational.
"The process of
rationalization," Max Weber wrote, "favoured
the primacy of universal gods; and every
consistent crystallization of the pantheon followed systematic rational
principles to some degree, since it was always influenced by
professional sacerdotal rationalism or by the rational striving for
order on the part of secular individuals. Above all, it is the
aforementioned relationship of the rational regularity
of the stars in their heavenly courses as regulated by divine
order, to the inviolable sacred, social order in terrestrial affairs,
that makes the universal gods the responsible guardians of both these
phenomena." (P. 81)
In other words: religion, like science, began with the inscrutable
majestic spectacle of the heavens. This points again to the fact
are destined to compete: they are occupying the same
[Commentary] Scientific (materialistic) truth and spiritual truth do
NOT completely occupy the same territory, but neither do they conflict or
The great religions, therefore, were about completeness, a totality
of explanation. After Moses, in 1000 B.C. the Rig-Veda was written down in India and was followed, in 600 B.C., by the
Upanishads. Siddhartha, the Buddha,
taught around 500 B.C. Zoroastrianism began in Persia in 660 B.C.
Confucius was born in 551 B.C. and so on.
For the 1,800 years up to the
death of Muhammad in A.D. 632, the world seemed to have embarked
upon a massively diverse program of
universal explanation. And, for such explanations to be true, they
had to apply to all aspects of
life. Religion progressed from its roots in the cycles of nature
and as a background to culture to become the culture itself. In Chinese,
Indian and European civilizations, religion
aspired successfully to become one
with all the works and lives of
men. In Christian Europe the grandest
expressions of this unity were the Gothic cathedrals.
[Commentary] No matter how you take it, this last statement covers a pathetic
The explanations and justifications in each of these systems
were, of course,
extraordinarily diverse. Weber characterized each by the ideally perfect
carrier of each faith: "In Confucianism, the world-organizing
bureaucrat; in Hinduism, the world-ordering magician;
in Buddhism, the mendicant monk wandering through the
world; in Islam, the warrior seeking
to conquer the world; in Judaism, the wandering trader; and in
Christianity, the itinerant journeyman."
But they were all explanations and justifications of human life
tended to fall into the prophet-priest pattern also described
Weber. Prophets provided the system and the ultimate values;
priests analyzed and rationalized this
system and adapted it to the
forms and customs of life. It
is an important pattern in human affairs
which was to be repeated in the
development of science. The
prophets were the innovative scientists, the priests were the interpreters,
extenders and technologists who followed in their wake.
Yet from one of these
Theories of Everything—only one—sprang the form of knowledge that was to
challenge and transform them all.
There are any number of theories as to why the scientific imagination
should have sprung solely from the Christian. None is conclusive,
but some points are worth making.
[Commentary] If "science" sprang from Christendom—I'm not saying that
it didn't—we have the gruesome situation, as Appleyard describes it, of
the child eating its parent!
First, of all the
universal religions, Christianity was, perhaps, the (P.
82) most radical. Like
the Pythagorean community at Croton in ancient Greece which had
worshiped the purity of number, the Christians considered the body as a
prison and viewed life on earth as a preparation for Heaven. In spite
of the efforts of the Middle Ages to unite theology with Aristotle,
this was, at heart, a Platonic vision that
specifically dismissed appearances in
favor of essences. And, as I have said, the Scienza Nuova
was closely linked to a Platonic revival.
Platonism, science and Christianity
all shared the conviction that there was an underlying order
behind the accidents of this world.
In Christianity this
wisdom became symbolic. Theologians interpreted
the life of Christ as replete with significance. From the centrality
of the bread and wine at the Last Supper to the details of his
nativity at Bethlehem, all could be minutely meditated upon for
wider and deeper meanings. The facts of the world were symbolically
linked to a divine order and were, therefore, directly imbued with
meaning and value. In the years of the Catholic Church's decadence
so-called fragments of the True Cross were sold across Europe as if all
matter that had played a part in that drama had been magically
transformed. Yet even this extremity of superstition can be seen as a
precursor of the new age—the
scientific imagination was also
founded upon an obsessive observation
of specific detail and upon the deeper significance of matter.
Christianity established the style of the new knowledge. It was
just that science did not save your soul.
[Commentary] "Theologians interpreted the life of Christ as replete
with significance." On the contrary, they didn't SEE the real significance but
they INTERPRETED it as though it was replete with it.
Furthermore, Christianity was an individualizing faith. In the
Church itself this emphasis has ebbed and
flowed. But the inescapable
center of the Christian doctrine is the suffering and spiritual
progress of one man, Jesus, who was
humbly born into the daily rituals of humanity.
[Commentary] But this is the wrong center. Jesus didn't even begin
his public ministry until he was spiritually mature, and his suffering
and death represented not something called for or inevitable, but rather the
FAILURE of mankind at the time to open the mind and understand
his message and his Gospel.
There is nothing in any
other faith to compare with the figure of
Christ on the cross as an emblem of
the trials of human life. It
speaks simultaneously of the reality and complexity of the things of
this world as well as the
profound humanity and loneliness of the
effort required to attain the next. The attempt of the medieval
Church to contain this dynamic
humanity in Christianity within a
static, Aristotelian/Thomist universe
can be seen in this context to be a kind of betrayal. The Franciscan
side of Christianity had been right to see potential sin in
subtlety and the pride of the intellect. Thomism was la trahison des
clercs—the heresy of the overrefined.
[Commentary] "Christ on the cross as an emblem of the trials of human
life" is an utterly stupid thing to think, and it is to entirely miss the point, that it was the ultimate
DEMONSTRATION of the character and values of the Creator and the Father.
Yet it was a heresy
that was unavoidably built into the individualistic structure of
Christianity. And it was this intellectual individ‑ (P. 83)
ualism toward which
the faith had evolved in the hands of Aquinas
that permitted the emergence of science. The
scientists were the new suffering
Christs rebelling against the suppression of their new forms of
knowledge by a decadent ecclesiastical authority.
Christianity's most powerful claim to be the sole
creator of the modern world derives from
its underlying tragic sense. The world
destroyed its savior. God sent his Son to become human and to
suffer and die as a human. The orthodox Christian would say that process
was an exemplary identification of the divine with the
human. The danger is that the drama
could become all too human. The suffering and death could still have
meaning without an external creator. Perhaps, in becoming flesh,
God died. Perhaps the story tells us
that the truth is here, now and within, rather than in some
distant paradise. And, if that is so, perhaps it is here, now and within
Einstein, Newton or Galileo as much as in Jesus or St. Paul.
[Commentary] Jesus didn't "become human" nor did he come to suffer and
die, but the balance of the paragraph has good points and good questions, and they need to
generalities. More puzzling is why science did not
emerge in the highly
developed civilizations of the East. A number
of ingenious reasons have been suggested:
a rigid social structure preserving learning within a literary ruling
class, written language remaining
aristocratically distant from technical and everyday language,
contempt for manual labor holding back technology, the size of
the Chinese empire and so on. It is a vivid enough contrast that
summarizes all these points to hold up
the ideal of the Confucian scholar against the figure of Newton.
The Confucian was a patrician who, according to tradition, would grow
one fingernail to enormous length to
demonstrate how far he was above lowly manual work. Newton ground
his own lenses. To become a scientist the patrician would have had to
break his nail.
Yet perhaps more important than any
of this for the purposes of
understanding the present is the fundamental intellectual difference
that lay behind all these details. Chinese religion was holistic.
True knowledge was knowledge of the
whole, not the parts. Experiment in the Galilean or Newtonian
sense would thus be meaningless. The quasi-ideal conditions of a frictionless surface, of weights dropped
from a tower or of light split by a prism would be trivial to a
Chinese scholar next to an
understanding of the greater harmonies of nature
and society. And so they were, but
triviality was to mount upon triviality until universal laws of
unprecedented effectiveness were revealed.
As John Barrow has written:
"Ancient holistic ideas provided no (P. 84) methodology for
developing understanding, because they outlawed
the concept of cutting up nature into manageable
independent pieces that could be
This is an important
distinction which, in fact, can be discovered
in comparisons between Christianity and a number of other
religions. Christian emphasis on the details of the life
of Christ inspired a cultural
acceptance of the study of parts, of a fragmented expertise. To some
Oriental faiths an understanding of parts was no
understanding at all. It was
self-evident that all things were one. In such a context
successful science could not even begin.
[Commentary] The above paragraphs encapsulate a very astute observation by Appleyard.
It is amazing to visit all the various ways or "rules" that have been
developed to keep us from progressing on the path to the truth.
Perhaps, finally, monotheism itself was
the ideal environment for science. A single, all-powerful God would
encourage the view that uniform laws lay hidden beneath the surface of
nature. And it is significant that the
"mind of God" is frequently evoked by scientists
as a more poetic version of what they
are examining than the more
usual "reality." This is not done simply to acquire the virtue of God,
it is also because God as an individual seems to conform with the
scientific faith in simplification. Newton himself was a secret unitarian—he did not believe in the orthodox Christian concept of the
Trinity—and it is clear that the
belief directly linked to his drive toward a perfect, unified
synthesis of scientific knowledge. Openly confessed unitarianism,
however, would have excluded him from the professorship at Cambridge.
For whatever reason, Christian Europe
created science, the devastatingly
effective system that was to call into question all the
world religions that had been
codified in the previous 3,000 years.
So it was the Christians who had to
endure the first imaginative onslaught.
We have seen the high intellectual
repositioning that took place from
Descartes through Hume to Kant. But this was the most rarefied
level of debate, concerned primarily with the urgent but practically
remote problem of what and how we could know and almost
avoiding the desperate struggle of
faith itself. At the more immediate
level of how society could work in the light of the new knowledge
there seemed to be more obviously pressing issues than epistemology.
The medieval synthesis was based upon the
belief that all was religious. Society
flowed smoothly downward from kings and popes to peasants. There
were abuses, protests, dissent and doubt, but the underlying model was
clear. The turbulence—intellectual and polit‑ (P 85)
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, was
more than local dissent. The underlying model was being
It is almost banal to point to the hundreds of references in the works
of Shakespeare to the appalling dangers of a disordered
state, of the destruction of hierarchies. But they are
there, and Shakespeare was born in
the same year as Galileo.
The Galilean message,
his way of creating a coexistence of science
and religion, was that there were two books—the book of faith
and the book of nature—rather than
one universal book, one Summa, that made sense of all things
political, moral and cosmological. And, if there were two books, then
in any area of life we would have to
consider which one to consult. Indeed, it could be the case
that our public lives may be conducted entirely according to the
book of nature, leaving the book of faith only for our private, inward
journeys. The unity of the religious
world was thus undermined by the explicit acceptance that public
and private morality could be reasonably separated. What we say—on the
basis of the book of faith —is not
necessarily what we do on the basis of the book of nature.
The effect of science with its
individualism and its insistence on
observation and reason as opposed to authority is clear enough. It
was a condensation of the tendencies of the age as well as their
most effective expression. Like the voyages of discovery, the rapid mercantile
growth of Europe and the Protestant questioning of the nature of
Christianity, it represented a dynamic and progressive view of human
life. It speculated, debated, and experimented. As Descartes's
method had established, its ideal was
skeptical and questioning and its only standard was the interior
of the questioning mind.
appeared limitless. If the Book of Faith were to
be separated out,
then science had the whole of material creation as
its plaything. So, for example, human
society might be capable of scientific analysis. And, if it were, there
would be no need to persist with the religious politics that had plunged
Europe into war. Science could provide a rational model.
But the abyss that lies between any such
model and a religious society is
immense. In a scientific society, reason would have to
prevail. There could be no subjection
or oppression of reasoned analysis in the name of any
extrarational authority. Equally, a scientific society would, in the
long term, be classless. Each man's conscience was his own as was his
reason. The next Newton could come from any stratum of society. (P
would slowly penetrate European thought
and form her societies in the years of
scientific progress. They were accompanied and echoed by successive
attempts either to halt or to collude
with the assault on religion. The response of a straightforward, fundamentalist denial of science's insights persisted and is
with us still. Yet even the Catholic Church abandoned this defense.
Having fought back against the new philosophers—scientists—by comparing
them to the builders of the Tower of Babel who wished to scale the
heavens and rebel against God, they finally came to terms. The Jesuit
deal implicit in the Counter-Reformation was that if the
individual of the new age would
surrender his moral autonomy to
the Church, then, in return, the
Church would relax the more severe and ascetic demands of medieval
religion. And, in 1893, Pope
Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus officially
endorsed the Galilean view of relations between scientific and biblical
But it was
Protestantism that was to provide the most dynamic
image of faith's struggle against the
inroads of science. For a start the Reformation had been born out of the
same turmoil and the same imaginative changes as science. It had also
been inspired to reject authority—that
of the Catholic Church—in the same way that the
first scientists had rejected authority—that of the Church and of
classical learning—as a generalized guide to the understanding of the
universe. Crucially, Protestantism also emphasized the centrality of
reason and of language as opposed to
the unquestioning acceptance
and grand mystifications of the medieval Church. In Protestantism
the magical element of religion was at first played down and then, at
last, firmly suppressed.
Christianity," Max Weber wrote, "the importance of preaching has been proportional to the elimination of the more
sacramental components of the religion. Consequently, preaching
achieves the greatest significance in Protestantism, in which the
concept of the priest has been supplanted altogether by that of the
magic, it seems to me, is crucial. The power of magic is popular belief.
It can and must "work" only within the
context of such belief. If everybody
believes in encounters with demons, then the encounters occur. A
private, personal magic is impossible, it must exist within a culture.
Modern skepticism about the "reality"
of such encounters is beside the point. But this is precisely the
area that science most effectively invades. By its displays of (P. 87)
predictive power—as in the case of the
return of Halley's Comet—it draws
belief away from magic, its deadly rival. Perhaps only the words
are changed: magic becomes science, magicians become scientists. But
the change still occurs.
In reducing the magical aspect of the faith, Protestantism must have
improved its strategic position. It had simply abandoned territory that
could not be defended. This, combined with the decisive Protestant
emphasis on the struggle of the individual soul, opened up the
possibility of radical new definitions of religion. It may have taken
the Catholic Church until 1893 officially to
acknowledge that it may have
been wrong in the case of Galileo, but, by then, Protestant
thought had already re-created the faith.
Kant and Hume were the great
initiators of this Protestant enterprise. They were to be followed by a
decisive phase which still dominates most theological thought today.
This was the development of "liberal" theology.
theology springs from Hegel (1770-1831) and from
the desire to unify the whole world
picture, including science, into a religious system which could not
simply be falsified. The Hegelian vision was of history as the unfolding
story of a single spiritual development. The point was the unfolding.
This allowed for progress and change instead of insisting on the unity
of a single, revealed truth. Science
could thus be embraced as a part of the faith. The knowledge provided by science was as much part of this process as anything
else and in no way invalidated its religious truth. Science was
simply a further phase in the
revelation of the great historical system.
Truth was an unfolding, a forward movement toward some ultimate
condition, traditionally known by Christians as the Kingdom
goal was human freedom, but from this man was
held back by necessity and alienation.
Necessity was his dependence on nature
to feed, clothe and sustain himself. This science could help him
overcome. But his path to freedom and spirituality was still blocked by
his alienation. Man saw himself as subject and object. He saw himself in
the world but also as other, as somehow separate.
"Alienation" is the Hegelian form of
the problem of scale identified
by Pascal, Lewis Carroll, Jonathan
Swift and countless others. It is the perpetual ambiguity and
puzzle of consciousness.
From such a
position two developments are possible. The first is
to abandon the religious interpretation
completely. Indeed, Hegel's (P. 88)
disciple Ludwig Feuerbach specifically located the source of alienation
as religion itself. Feuerbach called himself Luther II and insisted
that man would only be free if he finally demythologized religion and placed himself, rather than God, at the center of
consciousness. The great narrative of historical development thus
becomes a purely human story.
The point on
which Feuerbach had seized was that the imaginative
power of the central Hegelian view of history as an unfolding
story with distinct
and identifiable processes at work was such that
the religious backdrop was hardly necessary. This is
a familiar insight.
We have seen how Newtonianism could survive as physics
stripped of this God and his magic.
Similarly Descartes's God was
insufficiently glued onto his skepticism to endure. Always the tendency of our age is the same: to take only what we think we need
from the past and leave behind that in
which we can no longer believe. We edit the culture until it
accords with our own image of ourselves.
Perhaps the supreme act of editing
of Hegel was Marxism. Karl Marx simply replaced the religious determinant of the pattern of
history with economic and social
structures. Here alienation was
located in the workplace where modern
man was condemned to be the tool of capitalist processes with no interest in or identification
with what he produced.
the highest point of the attempt to link politics
and science. Like Nietzsche, he was not
content with the thoughtful impotence to which philosophy had been reduced. "The philosophers,"
he wrote, "have only interpreted the world in various ways;
the point is to change it."'[12
] This is not a mere rhetorical flourish, for
it represents a fundamental inversion
of the conventional thought process. Conventionally we might
imagine that people would think about
the world and then attempt to change it into something more in
line with their conclusions. But Marx saw that the very thought
processes were determined by the material reality of the society that
produced them. It was pointless interpreting the world when your
interpretations could be no more than
expressions of that world. And any such expression could be no more than part of the process
of interminable philosophical conflict that lay beneath the capitalist
world. The resolution of all such
conflicts—"contradictions" they are usually called in the
jargon—could only be achieved in a communist world, so social action
aimed at hastening the arrival of
(P. 89) communism must take
precedence over interpretation. The paralysis
of alienation was thus circumvented by action that
This places the
emphasis on the effectiveness of the Marxist
belief in Marxism itself. You had to have faith to
thought. But this faith needed more if it were not to descend into
mere Utopianism, if it were not
too obviously to be mere faith. The extra was provided by Marx's
conviction that he had discovered the
scientific laws of social change—primarily the historic movement
from primitive socialism to feudalism, capitalism, and, finally, true
communism. This was a "scientific" fact which did not require individual
intervention or commitment. Indeed, there was no ethical element
whatsoever. Once the facts of social change were made clear to
the proletariat, the class that would force the next phase of
change, then the revolution would take
place. This would then produce
the change in consciousness that would effect the necessary moral
transformation, and true communism would ensue.
Marx's science was
the economic evolution of society. Discerning Hegelian patterns in history, he used these to produce
forecasts. He created a powerful,
deterministic, atheistic system as the full and
final explanation of human history. The scientific God of Causality
was shown to apply to social and political structures.
Of course, the thought assumed, and still
does, far more than we could possibly know. Nothing that can comfortably
be called science has yet emerged from economics, politics or sociology.
In his eagerness to borrow the
imaginative, persuasive power of science, Marx
had produced a strange distortion of
history. He assumed, for example,
that economic growth was a permanent feature of human society
and that the rapidly industrializing world that he saw about him
was a definite product of a single, linear, historical narrative. But
the growth and the progress' which
formed such a central part of his
"science" were, as I have said, only
recent developments. Societies
have existed in conditions of economic stagnation far more often
than they have enjoyed economic growth, and the Marxist phases of
history are an appallingly crude generalization.
As a result, of course, Marx's forecasts
were uniformly wrong. Applied to
politics in the real world, his thought produced monstrous,
destructive regimes. Yet the impulse behind Marxism is understandable
enough—surely human reason, having reached so far, could reach into the
workings of human society. If we could under (P 90) stand
and forecast the activities of the heavens, our own world and its
history could scarcely be beyond our grasp. Furthermore, Marxism
possessed an irrational, imaginative power thanks to its obvious indebtedness
to the Christianity it was designed to overthrow. In Christianity
there was a fallen state, followed by revelation of the coming of Christ
and, finally, there was salvation. In Marxism there
was the fallen state of bourgeois
capitalism, the coming of the Revolution and, finally, the onset
of communism. Both processes required a radical transformation of the
But, for my purposes, the important
question about the Marxist effort was
not so much why or how it was wrong, but, rather, whether it
could possibly have been right. Is a rational, scientific, conclusive
and universal understanding of human history possible? Marx could have
been wrong because his observation was wrong, because his analysis was
wrong or because he did not understand practical politics. But was he
wrong because there was no possibility of being right? Does history lie
beyond science? My answer is yes.
I include these matters in a chapter on
faith and science because Marx
represented an attempt to turn science into a faith. His insistence
upon action is not a moral injunction in the usual sense, but it
behaves like one. It demands that we act correctly in answer to a
higher power. In Marx this happens not
to be God, but his idea of
science. Whatever we may believe, we are subject to this higher
power and the only way to behave is in accordance with its laws.
Not to behave thus means simply that
one will be crushed by its
logic. It was that last conviction that was to justify the worst of all
the horrors of the twentieth century—the Stalinist Terror in the
It is sometimes assumed that the
discrediting of the various experiments
with Marxism has discredited both the Marxist idea and the idea of a
scientific society. This is not so. In the first place the
idea that we can evolve a science of society and politics is still alive
in much thought of both the
right and left wings of politics. Secondly, the fall of Marx did
not destroy the idea of a scientific society, it actually made it
possible. As I said in my first chapter, liberalism is the true
scientific society and it is liberalism that has economically defeated
The other path from
Hegel—and the one that attempted to
preserve the outlines of the Christian faith—lay in the
development of liberal theology.
This amounted to a refinement of Protestant (P.
91) individualism combined with the Hegelian
theme of the narrative of history. The
great story of the "world spirit" could be examined by
the individual conscience. The revelations of science were part of
this narrative and faith had to be
alert to the process to grasp the
divinely inspired plan. In our own
time the sheer attractiveness of
the idea of liberal theology accounts
for the huge success in the sixties of the Catholic thinker
Teilhard de Chardin. He devised an
elaborate system for explaining the development of human knowledge
in the context of our movement into the "noosphere" in which the
act of knowing would predominate. The easy attraction of such thinking
is that it effectively says there is no problem, everything is included,
all will come right in the end.
Liberalism in theology also lies behind
the pervasive cultural liberalism of our day. The revelation of the
world spirit was a universal revelation, available to all people and
all cultures rather than specifically available to Christians. All
cultures could thus be said to be
equal in the eyes of this universal, evolutionary history. Again
there was no problem.
But there is a problem. For liberal
theology it lies in the difficulty of retaining any meaning at all in
its religious foundation and in
convincing anybody that it is anything but wishful thinking. Liberalism
happily accepts any number of increasingly nonliteral interpretations
of the Bible while trying to preserve the reality of the underlying
theology. Indeed, liberal theology is actually defined by its
attempts to understand how exactly any
such reality can be established.
It is, in this sense, a project designed simply to have the best
of both worlds.
Two dangers arise
from such an approach. The first is the extreme
subjectivism it can inspire. This was, of course, implicit in the
Protestant emphasis on the individual conscience. But liberalism
accelerated this inward movement of the faith by encouraging an
understanding of religion as inwardly
rather than outwardly determined.
In Paul Tillich, the modem Protestant theologian, this process
finds its logical expression when he advises people to speak of
God as "of the depths of your life, of
the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you
take seriously without any reservation."
This is the climax
of the radical, inward attempt to save the
deity, one that clearly demonstrates the
damage done to religion by science. All Tillich finds that he can say
of God is that he is a (P 92) condition of moral seriousness. God requires nothing of us except
that we think deeply about things.
The second danger of
liberalism lies in its permanent vulnerability to its own analytical thought. Liberalism requires
activity, constant examinations of the faith. But questioning the
details of the faith always carries with
it the danger of questioning its
entirety. This is precisely what happened to German theologists in
the nineteenth century. It was a critical phase in the history of
Inspired by the work of Kant, Lessing
and, most important, Schleiermacher, these first truly modem theologians
applied critical thinking to what
really constituted Christianity. Schleiermacher began
the process of centering the faith on man. For him, man's feelings
were the grounds of reality and Jesus represented simply the man
whose feelings had attained the highest degree of perfection.
In the nineteenth
century such critical thinking was applied to
the Bible and, in the process, its fundamental
authority was effectively
destroyed. The most celebrated assault came from David Friedrich
Strauss, who produced in 1836 The Life of Jesus,
Critically Examined. Strauss's
problems with Christian orthodoxy arose directly from a study of
Hegel. The idea of an evolving world spirit left him puzzled as to what
orthodoxy he could honestly teach. His book,
which dealt with the Christian drama
entirely in mythological terms, was the seminal expression of the nonliteral interpretation of
Christianity. It may be said to be a central text of the nineteenth
century. On translating it into
English the novelist George Eliot lost her faith. It destroyed
Strauss's career as a teacher, even though his entire effort had been
directed toward the recovery of Jesus as a meaningful figure.
From this sprang the radically tragic
Christian theology of Albert Schweitzer, who regarded Jesus as being
positively wrong. The Kingdom of God
had not been at hand. He died forsaken, having believed
his own sufferings would at once transform the world. The only
Christ left at the end of this process was an exemplary figure of
overwhelming moral stature and nobility. But God? No.
Such a process can
too easily be seen as a long retreat. In the
case of Tillich, it clearly was. First we found that God was not "up
there" and Hell was not "down there"
in any literal sense, then he
had been evacuated from our world entirely. Next we looked inward
to discover him there. But, simultaneously, the other outward, his‑
93) torical manifestations of his existence
were being wrecked by critical —i.e.,
scientific—thinking. Finally, the Christian is left with nothing
but a good man and an inner moral seriousness.
No wonder Nietzsche was roused to fury.
There was nothing left worth defending. It was time to start again in
suffering, rage, and heroism.
Or perhaps not. For me the Protestant
effort did produce one overwhelmingly convincing defense of the
faith as a faith. I stress the word "convincing" because I do not
necessarily mean persuasive, I mean
coherent and unarguable on its own terms. A defense of religious
belief does not necessarily have to convince others, it might merely
mean the discovery of a way in which it can be coherently
sustained in the defender. And I
stress the phrase "as a faith" because this great act of
defense, or rather defiance, turned upon the deepest meaning of the word
For what does "faith" mean? Clearly it
cannot mean being rationally
persuaded of something. If we had a reason for faith, then it
would not be faith at all, it would be logic. Faith can only be
[Commentary] This kind of "faith" is a leap in the dark, not my
definition of faith at all. My faith is that the Creator is
intrinsically good for me and has human values, is logical and reasonable,
AND wants to be understood.
Christianity, when stripped of its medieval accretions,
actually insisted upon this unreasonableness. It had always
been a religion of redemption through
suffering. Its nature was paradoxical,
irrational: to find the light you must pass through darkness, to
find peace you must endure turmoil, to attain everything you must first
In this context it might be possible to
turn the cruel invasion of science into something else. It might be just
one more trial through which the faith
had to pass. The destruction of "evidence" for the faith by the
extension of our scientific knowledge might simply be a way of driving
back on faith itself. Perhaps the very impossibility of belief was the
This was the solution
of Soren Kierkegaard, the greatest theologian of the modern world and possibly the one man with an
intensity of mind to match the destructive atheism of Nietzsche. Upon
the extremity of the modern demand
for unbelief, he constructed his faith. In his short life (1813-55)
he defined the ultimate position of
Protestant individualism. He rejected Hegel's metaphysics as too
easy, a philosophy that removed
responsibility from the individual for his own life and his own
choices. He rejected also the subtle abstractions of the idealistic
To Kierkegaard the world demanded of the
individual one highly specific act: a choice. This "authentic choice"
applied to all areas of human life,
but, most importantly, it applied to faith. Christianity was not a
reasonable proposition, it was not likely to be true, one could not
arrive at such a system by rational processes. One must
become a Christian.
Christianity cannot be plausible; if it were it would be the
softest of options, a mere choosing of the nicest alternative. But
Christ suffered on the cross and the choosing Christian
would have to endure comparable
sufferings. Above all, he would
have to suffer the sheer
improbability of what he had to believe. One becomes a Christian
in spite of everything. The effort of that becoming, the struggle
against the claims of rationality, lay at the authentic heart of the
[Commentary] Just one outrageous proposition after another; the idea
that the Christian should "have to endure comparable sufferings" is
ludicrous. What none of these "great" expositors seems to have done is
to realize that they themselves might be suffering from Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder and the associated guilt, denial and amnesia, and to
devise intra-personal safeguards to recognize and defuse these influences
on their thinking.
The importance of
Kierkegaard was that he found a way of turning the retreat of religion into an advance. He required
subtlety nor evasion to sustain his faith, he simply required the reality
of choice. This stripped away the details of theological and
philosophical debate as well as the material inroads of science into
the spiritual empire of the Church.
It even eliminated the entire issue of the meaning of God's
"existence." We chose and that was that.
But, if this were a
triumph of the intellect and of courage, even if it were "true," it
could scarcely offer a program for the revitalization
of the Church as an institution.
Kierkegaard was too demanding, too individualistic and too removed from
the literal realism that people demanded of their faith for his teaching
to become popular. In addition, of course, the fact of the choice meant
that you could choose against faith—only by retaining that possibility
could you retain the authenticity of the choice.
As a result of all these factors his
legacy, perversely, has been the most recognizable image of radical
atheism in our own time. For
Kierkegaard created existentialism, the popular modern philosophy
of the individual as isolated with his own choices, creating himself
anew each day. Pessimistic and
narcissistic, the existentialist becomes
the hero of his own story, the one self-created object in his
world. It was not a legacy he would have liked because it represents
precisely the wrong choice.
Kierkegaard's central theological
argument springs from the imagination
of an artist. The literariness of his works is as important
as their theological content. They are as much expressions of the
problem as arguments about it. In the end he was asking us all to (P.
95) have souls as great
as his own. No demand can more precisely oppose
a man of genius to the modern world. He was certainly at odds
with his own age. Indeed, he
consciously fought against his time, even deciding not to marry
because to do so would be to tie him too precisely to the history of the
nineteenth century. But, in spite of his
sheer oddity, I believe Kierkegaard's
importance lies in the clarity with which he saw the issue. He saw that
our humanity could only be saved by an act of absolute assertion,
of choice. This choice was made on the basis of ourselves in spite of,
even in opposition to, the facts of the world. Perhaps his demands seem
extreme only because they came too
early—perhaps now we can see they are not extreme at all, merely
But the history of his own time was, of
course and in spite of everything,
the history of the relentless progress of science. In the first
half of the century the residual theology of the Enlightenment
remained. The argument from design—God as the supreme engineer of
all this newly discovered order—still held the imagination. But, as the
Industrial Revolution progressed and science became a powerful,
professional institution, God
retreated popularly as he had already done intellectually.
century, however, was not simply, or even primarily, an age of heroic technology fabricating a new world and
intellectual giants struggling to
discover a new world order or salvage
the remnants of the old faith. It was also the age of a new type
of man with a new type of faith, a
faith that embraced science as a
myth of progress and improvement. In
terms of the increasing numbers of literate people, this was the authentic new faith that really
did replace religion with its demands, its darkness and
mystification. For the nineteenth century was also the age of Homais the
Homais is perhaps
the greatest character in, for me, the greatest
of all novels—Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Published in
the book is a conventional tale of provincial adultery. A passionate,
selfish, imaginative wife turns against the narrowness of her existence,
married to a dull husband, a doctor, and confined by the
mores of a small town. She is
destroyed by the process and dies hideously from
Homais is the local
pharmacist, the possessor of the arsenic. He
is a New Man, a prophet of the age to come. He is a liberal-minded
skeptic, anticlerical and progressive. His being is a celebration of the
peak of nineteenth-century
civilization, rather like the Natural History
Museum in London. History is an open book to Homais, he
knows everything. Science, he is convinced, will one day solve all
our problems. In all this he is rather like us. For Homais is indeed
the New Man, an embodiment of all
the beliefs of the new age. The catch is that Homais the chemist
is the most vivid, unforgettable
realization of evil ever to spring from the Western artistic imagination.
Flaubert's genius in creating this
colossal monster was to show, from one perspective, the terrifying
inadequacy of his beliefs and yet, from another, their equally
terrifying adequacy. Nothing in Homais's
glib doctrines can ever provide
meaning or consolation for the passions of Madame Bovary.
Confronted with human weakness and imagination, Homais can only respond
with the bland, supercilious assurance
of the technocrat. From the perspective of suffering humanity he
has nothing to say. And yet, from his own perspective, he
can say everything. He knows that all this drama is just a passing,
local fragment of history. He
knows it has no meaning other than within the impersonal
narrative of progress. Homais, after all, is a scientist, a
technologist, a sober, serious member of the community. Homais can keep
things in perspective. Homais is a bourgeois.
The appalling tragedy is that Homais is
right. Madame Bovary is an inadequate.
She lives in dreams. Certainly she is an artist—"Madame
Bovary, c'es moi,"
Flaubert said—but, in this new world,
to be an artist is to be a sideshow, a
passionately yearning creature
with nothing to yearn passionately
about. She is meaningless, whereas Homais is replete with
and rewards this. The last line of the book
tells us that Homais
had been awarded the Legion of Honor while
Emma lies moldering in her grave. It is a line that is
evoke in the reader an unbearable sense of rage and injustice. But it
is also a line designed to make us
wonder what we are angry about.
Homais is a vile, social-climbing, inhuman monster. But what have
we to offer that is so much better? Our rage is as baseless as Emma
Flaubert turned the
rage into his art. As Irving Babbitt has written, Homais was his vision of "contemporary life and the immeasurable abyss
of platitude in which it is losing itself through its lack of
imagination and ideal. Yet this same platitude exercises on him a
horrid fascination. For his
execration of the philistine is the nearest
approach in his idealism to a
positive content, to an escape from sheer emptiness and
Impotent rage and
sick fascination provide a kind of affirmation
in the face of the world of Homais, the bourgeois.
This digression into fiction is an
attempt to describe what was at stake
imaginatively in the nineteenth century. Primarily it was the age
in which the full personal, social and political implications of a
triumphant culture of science were finally realized. The decline of
faith and the oppressive sense
of fragmentation that accompanied this realization meant that it
was an age littered with elegies for a
harmonious past of faith and meaning.
Romantic art was full of medieval landscapes, primitive,
"organic" cultures and the peace of unspoiled nature. But it was also
littered with people like Homais, prophets of the new progress.
In the middle stood men like Kierkegaard
and Flaubert, the first trying to make the present work as the present
by providing it with a modem theology
and the second raging in despair that the modern was not worth
having and yet it was all there was. Both were vicious and implacable
enemies of the bourgeois faith.
For the bourgeois is the central
character in the post-religious,
scientific drama. He might be said not to exist as a real individual
except in the demonologies of these great souls who saw meaning
draining from the world. But he unquestionably exists as an aspect of us
all, a fundamental type of the present.
The precise resonance of the word is
important. The bourgeois is not
merely middle class, nor is he merely an anticlerical technocrat.
He is not merely materialistic, nor is he merely complacent. He is all
of these and yet he is also savage and inhuman in defense of his own
Certainly he is
shallow, but his roots run deep. These roots run
back to the new merchant class that sprang up in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries. The success of this class might be said to be, like
science, based on an essential
amorality. For, like science, trade appealed to an external value
that was not religion. In this case the external value was the demands
of trade itself, later to become the whole, elaborate structure of
The symbol of this
value was usury—the earning of interest.
Usury was a subject of profound dispute
in the Middle Ages precisely because of its obvious amorality. For usury
says that money has in‑ (P.
herent value. It does not
have to do anything to be worth something. Money simply lying in
a bank earns interest.
R. H. Tawney wrote
of this enormity: "To take usury is contrary to scripture; it is
contrary to Aristotle; it is contrary to nature, for it
is to live without labour; it is to sell
time, which belongs to God, for the
advantage of wicked men; it is to rob those who use the money
lent, and to whom, since they make it profitable, the profits should
belong . . ."'
Usury was, above all,
irrational in the context of a Thomist
world. It turned money into an
abstraction passing judgment on the activities of the world. Any project
based on borrowed money could only be judged by its ability to repay the interest. Against the systematic
rationalism of the medieval world, the Renaissance merchants
set up this irrationalism based on the arbitrary ascription of an
unchallengeable value inherent in notes, coins and, in a further
irrational refinement, the solemn assurance that such notes and
coins could be exchanged for nothing
more solid than a bank statement.
Usury was thus
irrational to a medieval mind in precisely the same way that science was
irrational. It was abstract, subjective,
arbitrary, far removed from the natural facts of the
world. Such qualities appalled
rationalist intellectuals, and their struggle to base
economic value on firmer foundations lasted well into the nineteenth
century. Karl Marx with his labor theory of value—an attempt
to see money as the precise correlative of work—may be said
in this context to be the direct descendant of Aquinas. Aquinas
wanted a consistent intellectual basis
for his faith of Christianity;
Marx wanted a consistent intellectual basis for his faith of economics.
But the mercantile
imagination, fired, like science, by its own
success, cared little for such refinements. Indeed,
it cared little for
any issues normally categorized as religious. "Everywhere," wrote Max
Weber, "scepticism or indifference to religion is and has been
the widely diffused attitudes of
large-scale traders and financiers."'
Trade seemed to give an objective
rationale for human existence
that reduced the need for belief. Science, to the complacent merchant,
appeared to validate this skepticism. So science impregnated trade and,
from its smug womb, the bourgeois was born.
first appears in Flaubert's novel, he is seen from a distance bent over
his desk. His home is described, plastered with (P.
99) advertisements for patent remedies—blood
purifiers, Regnault's ointment, and
so on. On the shop front is the sign HOMAIS, CHEMIST.
Inside there is a further sign:
LABORATORY. The commerce and the science are one in the house of
The problem with the
bourgeois was that he saw no problem.
Indeed, the phrase "No Problem" is the motto of every
contemporary Homais. Emma Bovary's tragedy is meaningless to him. She
brought it on herself
with her own silliness. Observing this, all the
art and genius of Flaubert can do is heighten our disgust,
fire our loathing. Similarly
Kierkegaard was driven to heaping such immensities
of moral responsibility onto the individual soul that no bourgeois
could possibly take the strain. Nietzsche merely demanded superhuman courage, vision, and aristocratic disdain for the suffering
of others. All were appalled by the complacent bourgeois compromise
they believed was threatening the spiritual health of the species;
indeed, threatening the very existence of the spiritual.
They were, of course, right. The twentieth century may have
stripped the bourgeois of some of his progressive ideals,
but, in essence,
his faith in the combination of economic growth and scientific
rationality has become the underlying religion of our age. Other
beliefs may be held and other
doctrines propagated, but this is the
only one that can be said to be a necessary characteristic of our
modern civilization. Homais has triumphed.
And this triumph has
marginalized the descendants of the
prophets who rejected the values of the bourgeoisie. For
the rise of the bourgeois created
the intellectual. Stripped of religion, the anti-bourgeois had to seek
other rationales for his loathing of Homais.
"The intellectual seeks in various ways,"
wrote Weber, "the casuistry which extends into infinity, to endow his
life with pervasive meaning, and thus
to find unity with himself, with his fellow men,
and with the cosmos. It is the
intellectual who transforms the concept of the world into the
problem of meaning. As intellectualism
suppresses belief in magic, the
world's processes become disenchanted, lose their magical
significance, and henceforth simply "are"
and "happen" but no longer signify anything. As a consequence,
there is a growing demand that the
world and the total pattern of life be subject to an order that
is significant and meaningful.
"The conflict of this
requirement of meaningfulness with the
empirical realities of the world and its
institutions, and with the possibilities of conducting one's life in the
empirical world, are re-(P 100) sponsible for the intellectual's characteristic flights from the
The intellectual is
one who cannot collude with the blank simplicity
of the bourgeois worldview, with its easy progress and its
all-conquering science. So he seeks his systems to show that the world
is more elaborate, finer and more
inclusive than anything in the dreams of Homais. But the effort
seems futile, first because all his systems are inventions, fictions,
works of art. They have nothing to
compare with the simple bourgeois certainties. And secondly, even
if they did attain comparable
certainty, they would remain in the
marginal realm of the intellectual—in
the smart, café society that has characterized the modern
intellectual life. Every literary clique, every artistic set, every
tasteful fad is a continuing expression of the sterility of the role the
intellectual has taken upon himself.
For the truth is that what the
intellectual quest really needs is a
religion, and yet it is fundamental to the nature of intellectualism
that that is the one thing the
intellectual cannot have. He can
neither embrace the old faiths, nor
can he invent new ones. All his
ideas are condemned to pass their time on the margins of a culture that
has chosen its own faith, its own metaphysic and which has no
need of his refinements.
[Commentary] Inventing meaning is what an existentialist does,
because the belief is that there IS NO real meaning out there. The
honest, authentic, real seeker of truth discovers the meaning; he does not
invent or manufacture it.
So, by the end of the nineteenth century,
the prevailing religious orthodoxy was clear. In its bourgeois form it
was the pragmatic unity of science and
trade. Beyond this lay the moral cosmology that science seemed
finally to have completed: that of the meaningless universe.
Man, in Freud's summary, was alienated from the universe, nature
and himself. Religion no longer accompanied the highest and best of
human thought. Instead it had become one more object of scientific
curiosity. Either it was an obvious mistake, an intellectual
error, or it was a symptom of human
discomfort and discontent—illusory
fulfillments, in Freud's words, "of the oldest, strongest and
most urgent wishes of mankind."
Against that there was the contrast of the form of knowledge
offered by science—"the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of a
reality outside ourselves."
Freud recognized the bleakness of such a
conclusion as well as his own role as
a modern incarnation of the sorcerer, but one without
magic: "Thus I have not the courage
to rise up before my fellow men as a prophet, and I bow to their
reproach that I can offer them no
consolation: for at bottom that is what they are all demanding .
. ."[19 ]
In the place of religious passion there could now only be a kind
of hopeless urbanity. What, the British geneticist
J. B. S. Haldane was asked, could
he deduce about the nature of the Creator from his
creation. "An inordinate fondness for beetles," he replied
with all the dismissive urbanity required of us by modem
"sophistication." There was nothing there, but what was there—beetles.
Worst of all, there
was nothing in such science to replace the
beauty and poignancy of the Christian myth. With a
clinician's sigh of regret, Freud
explained that our need for a single, all-powerful god was nothing more
than the human psyche's need for a father.
Religion had been
defeated. Western society would, henceforth,
be secular. The sheer energy, power and effectiveness of science had
weakened the old faith until it had
become just one more voice among many others, merely an opinion.
It may have answered questions that
science did not, but the source of its answers was no
longer believed, so neither were its
answers. We would just have to
live without those kinds of answer—or pretend to provide them
from the safety of our new posturing, smug roles as intellectuals or
Of course, we still
preserve the language of the old faith at
Christmas or in the desperate demands of
the American television evangelists. Most commonly we choke with nostalgia at the thought
of the certainties it must have provided.
But, even in the
midst of our most fervent nostalgia, we knew
that the past was never as easy as
science and technology have made the
present. The effectiveness of science weaves its familiar, seductive
spell. Whatever this appalling, comfortless knowledge meant,
we could not deny it worked. It made
bourgeois of us all. The problem
was that it left us with the aching, anguished loneliness of
scientific man in a universe which, in some ghastly parody of the
original fall from grace, his knowledge had stripped of goodness or
The defense of the faith had failed and the soul of modem man
had been formed. In 1869, after Newton, after Darwin, after Strauss, after
Kierkegaard, after Flaubert and with Freud already growing up
in Freiberg, the English, poet Matthew
Arnold looked out upon the sea at Dover. The sound of the waves on the shingle was a "melancholy,
long, withdrawing roar" which seemed to him like the sound
of the sea of faith retreating from
the earth. It left behind only the mutual consolation of human
beings in the face of the meaningless (P 102)
world of the ichneumon wasp. The beauty and wonder of creation
that had inspired the argument from
design in reality told us nothing. Beauty was not truth, truth
was not beauty. All that was left was the private avowal in the face of the unspeakable.
Ah, love; let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
and we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. - Matthew Arnold (P 103)
 "Dover Beach" in Matthew Arnold (Oxford, 1986), page 136
 Stephen Jay Gould, "Nonmoral Nature" in Hen's Teeth and
Horse's Toes (Penguin, 1990), page 35
 Friederich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (Penguin, 1970), page 121
 Ibid, page 127
 Ibid, page 34
 John Keats, "Ode to a Grecian Urn" in Poetical Work (Oxford,
1970), page 210
 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, trans. Ephraim
Fischoff (Beacon Press, Boston, 1964), page 22
 Ibid, page 132
 John D. Barrow, The World Within the World (Oxford,1988), page 149
 Max Weber, op. cit. page 75
 In Essential writings of Karl Marx, sel. David Caute (MacGibbon
& Kee, 1962), page 43
 In Alisdair MacIntyre, Against the Self-Images of the Age: Essays
on Ideology and Philosophy (Duckworth,1983), page 17
 Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (Texas, 1977), page 96
 R.H Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Penguin, 1987), page 55
 Max Weber, op. cit. page 92
 Ibid, page 125
 Sigmund Freud, "The Future of an Illusion" in Vol. 12 of the Pelican
Freud Library (Pelican, 1985)
 Ibid, page 339
 In Stephen Jay Gould, An Urchin in the Storm Penguin, 1990), page 180