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Site note: I do not have to agree with Appleyard's underlying
belief system that generated his opinion in
order to opine that this is one of the finest, most passionately eloquent chapters ever written.
When Appleyard unlimbers his prodigious and insightful familiarity with
history 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."
Understanding the Present
CHAPTER 4 DEFENDING THE FAITH
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! —Matthew Arnold1
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 describes a GOOD development, not one to bemoan. It is well past time that we find a different basis for goodness, purpose and meaning.
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 exploitative viciousness, 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."2
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 terrors.
[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 it?
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 appalling dislocation?
[Commentary] Religion has coped the same way that it always has and always will, i.e., by stressing "faith" instead of understanding and intellectual reponsibility, 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 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."3
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."4
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."5
[Commentary] "The lie of the ideal," Oh yes, how ridiculous 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 what religion is saying about God and his plan with the ideal.
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 . . ."6 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.
The Nietzschean 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." Amazing that Appleyard could suggest this, but his last phrase here is true. That is jst 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, of course, 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. 79) all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."7 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 aesthetic languor.
Yet a program was required if anything, other than science, was to survive.
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 way than either through nature and 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!
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 cultures.
Religions have 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 nature.
[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 and planetary catastrophe. The heavenly cycles were NOT stable and ancient man had learned that the hard way. Now, we have forgotten 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."8 (P. 81)
In other words: religion, like science, began with the inscrutable and majestic spectacle of the heavens. This points again to the fact that they are destined to compete: they are occupying the same territory.
[Commentary] Scientific (materialistic) truth and spiritual truth do NOT occupy the same territory, but neither do they conflict or contradict.
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] This last statement is 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."9
But they were all explanations and justifications of human life and all tended to fall into the prophet-priest pattern also described by 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 Chistendom--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." Oh yes! 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.
But perhaps 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.
These are 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 understood individually.”10
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] This is a very astute observation by Appleyard.
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) ical—of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, was more than local dissent. The underlying model was being challenged. 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.
Furthermore, it 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 86)
Such considerations 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 truth.
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.
"In Christianity," Max Weber wrote, "the importance of preaching has been proportional to the elimination of the more magical and 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 preacher."11
Abandoning 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.
Liberalism in 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 of God.
The Hegelian 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.
Marx represents 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 preempted thought.
This places the emphasis on the effectiveness of the Marxist belief in Marxism itself. You had to have faith to act without 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 human spirit.
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 Soviet Union.
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 communism.
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."13
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 theological 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 European belief.
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‑ (P. 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 "faith."
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 unreasonable.
[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.
Furthermore, 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 have nothing.
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 point.
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 Christian apologists.
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 faith.
[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 the 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 neither 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 necessary.
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.
The nineteenth 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 chemist.
Homais is perhaps the greatest character in, for me, the greatest of all novels—Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Published in 1857, 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 self-administered arsenic.
Homais is the local pharmacist, the possesser 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 meaning.
Society understands 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 designed to 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 Bovary's yearning.
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 (P. 97) 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 unreality."'14
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 postreligious, 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 complacency.
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 economics.
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. 98) 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 . . ."'15
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."'16 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.
When Homais 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 Homais.
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 world."'17
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."18 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 (P. 101)
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,"20 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 bourgeois.
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 meaning.
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
1. "Dover Beach" in Matthew Arnold (Oxford, 1986), page