(Fulton J. Sheen/ Wikimedia Commons)


[This essay was first published in the January 2nd, 1929 issue of Commonweal]

Sir Isaac Newton was the supreme proof that a man may be a very good mathematician and yet a very poor theologian. Professor Roy Wood Sellars of the University of Michigan in his latest book, Religion Coming of Age, is almost the supreme example that a man may be a very good philosopher of realism and yet a very poor philosopher of religion. This book, whose name is legion, puts forward an idea which goes so often unchallenged that it has become almost a dogma: viz., the new backgrounds of science and progress have antiquated not only supernatural religion, but also a belief in God, and made imperative a religion without God, or better still a religion whose fundamental query is: "Is the cosmos friendly?"

The proofs of the existence of God are considered worthless, mostly on the ground of authority, namely the infallible authority of Kant and Hume. In adding his own testimony to these philosophers, the author says:

‘The second great traditional argument in natural theology was the so-called cosmological argument to a First Cause. It is this that Saint Thomas stresses. We need not linger upon it because we have already argued that science and philosophy no longer tend to assume a First Cause. Why assume an absolute beginning for reality? If change is an event in nature, may not both change and nature always have been? And, in our human minds, we can go back in thought from effect to cause indefinitely. An indefinite series is quite thinkable, and any stoppage would be a matter of arbitrary fiat. Neither science nor philosophy, then, assumes any absolute beginning for reality.’

May we say that the second argument of traditional philosophy or of Saint Thomas is not the cosmological argument? Many a supposedly well-informed philosopher is living under the illusion that he has read Saint Thomas. But apart from that, would the fact that the world was eternal and that change and nature always were, nullify the argument of Saint Thomas? On the contrary, Saint Thomas insists that reason cannot prove that the world was created in time, and yet he holds to the existence of God, and his reason is, that it is one thing to say that the universe existed eternally from the chronological point of view, and another thing to say that it existed from all eternity from the ontological point of view. There is a world of difference between spatially imagining eternity and intellectually understanding it. The universe, says Saint Thomas, might always have been, but it would always have been dependent on God. The time element has nothing to do with the causal element. There are some philosophers who think that by dwelling on time and millions of years, they do away with the necessity of a Cause. This is just like saying that because the handle of a brush is sufficiently long it will paint by itself. A race horse is not dispensed from the necessity of a sire simply because it runs slowly.

What is to be said of the statement: "We can go back in thought from effect to cause indefinitely. An indefinite series is quite thinkable"? Where there is no intrinsically dependent relation one can go back indefinitely, and hence there is no necessity for a First Cause, but the case is quite different where there is an intrinsic relation in the series. For example, I can imagine an infinite series of hammers producing the present bowl of hammered brass, because the action of the fiftieth hammer does not depend upon the forty-ninth, nor does the action of the second depend upon the first. But I cannot imagine an infinite series of grandfathers--and the reason is obvious. Someone started fatherhood and without it there would never be son-ship--and that Father is God, from Whom all paternity is named.

Again we read in the same connection: "But alas! The idea of creation has been displaced by evolution." Now anyone who has ever read the first argument of Saint Thomas knows that his first proof for the existence of God is the fact of evolution in the world. Evolution is only the method, or one of the methods, of creation. It tells how things took place, viz., they unrolled like a carpet and made history; creation tells why they took place, viz., because someone made the carpet and gave it the roll. I could tell a man how a watch was made, namely, by a slow making of pieces from one original metal, but after I explained that process he could still ask: "But who made it?" Evolution, be it understood, no more excludes God than a "self-made" man excludes his mother.

After having banished God from his cosmos the author proceeds to draw his soul from his body. In this connection he says that one of the arguments for the soul is "the authority of the Church, and we have the emphasis of neo-scholasticism." This statement means to imply that neo-scholastic philosophy is the philosophy of Church authority, and Mr. Sellars alone does not share this error. This brings us to a point that needs stressing. The only condition for being a scholastic is not being a Church member, but reasonable; and the only condition for being a neo-scholastic is being reasonable in the twentieth century when everyone else is unreasonable. Scholasticism is the heritage of common sense, and any man with two well-formed lobes can be a scholastic and believe in a soul, even though he may not believe the authority of the Church. Professor William McDougall does not accept the authority of the Church and yet he believes in a soul; Dr. Hans Driesch does not accept the authority of the Church, but he does accept the authority of his reason and his science and he believes in a soul. Aristotle believed in a soul many years before there was such a thing as Church authority, and in the sense that Aristotle believed in the primacy of the intellect, he too was a scholastic.

The existence of the soul is an object of reason and not faith alone. It hinges on the mere inability of chemical elements in combination to effect the unity of a living organism, and that is why Saint Thomas begins his treatise on the soul with the treatment of the plant soul, then the animal soul, and, finally, the human soul, which has operations apart from the organism and therefore is capable of existing apart from it. If there is no soul but only matter, which acts uniformly under impressions, why is it, for example, that a man gets a double reaction from the single stimulus: "She is only a moonshiner's daughter but I love her 'still' "? What effects this superior synthesis or this "unification in actions," as Hans Driesch puts it, if there is only matter? There is here a synthesis transcending matter, and there is such a superior unification every time we laugh. Laughter is the possession of rational creatures, and this because, in virtue of their spiritual soul, they can see relations in judgments which mere irrational creatures cannot perceive. Religion can "dispense with a belief in immortality," concludes the author. Yes, it can, and with that inglorious dispensation every man will have no deeper relation to the future than to become as a stick of wood thrown into the bonfire of a combustible humanity to keep the flame of a consuming progress burning for the next generation. But for the life of me, I cannot see why a philosopher cannot admit the immortality of man, when he admits the immortality of the cosmos.

After these and similar arguments the author concludes that "tradition has failed." The belief in the Church, the supernatural, redemption and the like, all these have had their chance and failed. In a word, Christianity has failed. Such is the message of the first section of this book, with which alone we are concerned here. Would it not be truer to say that "Christianity has not failed, but that it has failed to be practised"?

And as for tradition, how can our boasted new-world vision of things go on without it? Tradition is a memory and humanity is its storehouse, and, just as an individual cannot think present thoughts unless he draws upon the storehouse of his memory, so neither can society think unless it goes back into the treasure house of tradition to draw from it those thoughts and reflections which will assist it to think out its problems. Can experience be any less valuable for society than it has been for man? This may be the reason for youths, but at least youths have memory. It is not the season of infancy. A world that despises tradition is a world that has lost its memory; and when memory goes, humanity is apt to forget where it left its thinking cap--and it seems to have forgotten that very thing at this very moment.

This all brings to the light of day the strange theory of progress which inspires so much philosophical writing in our time. What is progress? Is it like a seed, or is it like a pendulum? Does it evolve organically, or does it swing mechanically from one extreme to another? Are the fruits of our own day the homogeneous evolution of a seed into a tree, or are they a heterogeneous change like that of a man blown to atoms? The question is very apropos in the light of those who say they will have nothing to do with Christianity in its present form because it has not the simplicity of the kingdom of God taught by Our Divine Lord. This is just like saying that a man will have nothing to do with the mustard tree because it presents none of the proportions of the mustard seed. If life is organic then so is thought, and that means that progress consists in building on the past and not uprooting it. There must be some fixed goal or object before there can be progress, and it is impossible to say we are progressing if we continually change the ideal. Modern philosophical progress has come to mean nothing more than that what one generation believes as true the next generation will believe to be false.

How truly this is borne out by an appeal to the history of thought of the last few hundred years! In the eighteenth century when the science of Newton dominated thought and "built a new universe under the feet of man," all thought was said to be deductive and mechanical, and all thinking was to be deduced from a simple principle, such as Newton's principle of gravitation. Wolff in Germany, Tindal in England, Holbach and Voltaire in France, all built their systems along these lines. But the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century scrapped it. Instead of the didactic poetry of a Pope, there was the romantic poetry of a Wordsworth; instead of the cold rationalism of Morgan and Chubb, there was the reeking sentimentalism of Rousseau and his command: "Do not reason--it is painful, feel!" It was, then, not the deductive reason of Newton but sentimentalism which reigned supreme. But what that generation believed as true the next believed as false, and then came scientism in the middle of the century which resorted not to the deductive reason of Newton, but to the experimental inductive reason of Darwin and Huxley, and the positivistic reason of Comte. Science then was said to be omniscient; it could prove everything; it could even tell, thanks to an exact knowledge of the collocation of atoms, at what precise moment the cross would supplant the sceptre on the dome of Saint Sophia. But that notion spent itself and "progress" came in the shape of a reaction against the mechanism of science by Bergson, and the omniscience of science by Poincaré and Duhem. Today philosophers say there is nothing absolute, everything is relative; nothing is determined, but everything is contingent; nothing is true, everything is approximative; truth is not static but ambulatory. But there are a few philosophers who have not made such "progress," who are still living in the days of omniscience of science, and these are they who write that "modern science has been the dissolvent of tradition and the cause of a new and certain knowledge." If one may venture to be a prophet, and in the light of what has been happening in thought in the last 200 years, it would be safe to say that in the next fifty years we will probably believe in an atomic, mechanical universe, and believe in it for unscientific reasons. The reaction will come and Rousseau again will be enthroned on the altars of progress as its patron saint.

There is a remote possibility that some men will see that truth is unchangeable like the multiplication table, and that great discovery--for it will be a discovery by that time--will make them healthy rationalists once again, and with wonder and amazement they will look back upon the Council of the Vatican's decision that reason can prove the existence of God, and wonder why Catholicism should ever have been called a "mere religion of authority." In those days men will discover reason--somewhat like that other man who went out from the shores of England in a rowboat and came back and discovered England.

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