Living Options in Protestant Theology by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1972. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 3: Boston Personalism
Among European theologians, it is often assumed that any use of philosophy must lead to a doctrine of God which is in sharp tension with the personal God revealed in the Bible. I have argued that this tension does in fact exist in Thomism, and we will note similar problems in other theologians. (See especially the discussion of Paul Tillich in Chapter 10.) However, there is another kind of philosophy available for use as a natural theology that takes the category of person as decisive for the strictest thinking about God. Many of the usual objections do not apply against this kind of natural theology.
In this approach, as in Thomism, the idea of analogy plays an important role. However, the objections raised in the preceding chapter are not relevant, When the deists argued that the resemblance of the world to a machine meant that its maker must be like a mind, they did not mean that the likeness must be altogether unspecifiable. On the contrary, they meant quite literally that the maker of the world had a knowledge of mathematical principles and physical laws, that he had purposes which he undertook to realize in time, and that he had a concern for his creation. The deists were not prevented from meaning these things by a prior commitment to God’s simplicity and nontemporality. Analogy meant likeness of a specifiable sort, although it also pointed to the vast differences between a mind capable of producing and sustaining our world and our minds.
The rather static conception of God as creator, sustainer, and lawgiver, which characterized what we call deism, gave way under the impact of evolutionary theory to a more dynamic mode of thinking in which the immanence, as well as the transcendence, of God is stressed. In a general way, the fact of order and the adaptation of the world to man is now, as it has been for centuries, the mainstay of much popular religious thinking. That this order and adaptation have been achieved gradually through evolutionary processes affects the understanding of the way in which God works, but it does not alter the evidence for purposive creation. At least in the English-speaking world a common-sense natural theology of this sort predominates in lay thinking and underlies much preaching. Nowhere is the gulf between the dominant forms of contemporary theology and the theology of the folk church more apparent than in the attitude toward this kind of natural theology.
The popular convictions could not sustain themselves indefinitely if they were not supported by serious intellectual leadership. The most widely influential leadership of this sort in America has come from Boston University, where for several generations a recognized school of thought has dominated both philosophy and theology. This chapter includes a presentation and criticism of the theological method advocated and practiced by the leading contemporary theologian teaching at this institution, L. Harold DeWolf. It includes also a discussion of philosophical arguments for the existence of a personal God as developed by E. S. Brightman and his successor in the Bowne professorship at Boston University, Peter Bertocci.
Grouping these philosophers together with the theologian DeWolf in a single chapter under the heading of "Boston Personalism" suggests a unanimity and self-consciousness as a school of thought that does not in fact exist. In personal correspondence, DeWolf has protested this impression, which is given by both the title and the content I have chosen for this chapter. He prefers to classify himself as an evangelical liberal, and he stresses that theological orientations should not be labeled according to the philosophical elements or methods employed.
I wish here to acknowledge the justice of DeWolf’s objections to this grouping and classification of his theology. However, throughout this volume attention is focused upon the theological methods employed and especially upon the relation of theology to philosophy. In Part I the concern is specifically with the alternative ways of formulating and justifying natural theology and of relating distinctively Christian theology to it. In these respects, despite DeWoIf’s increasing emphasis on the Bible and traditional theology, (L. Harold DeWolf, "Biblical, Liberal, Catholic," Article X in the series How My Mind Has Changed, The Christian Century, Vol. 77, 1960, pp. 1303-1307). his position is not seriously misrepresented when correlated with the positions of the Boston philosophers.
DeWolf is clear and emphatic in his conviction that theology should not dispense with natural theology. (L. Harold DeWolf, The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective, pp. 31-41.) Christian faith assumes the existence of God. (L. Harold DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, p. 46.) Not only so, but it presupposes the existence of God as creator of the world and as concerned for his creation. All these basic Christian convictions are to be accepted on the basis of philosophy, as well as on the basis of specifically Christian revelation.
Since the case for Christian theology depends largely upon philosophical arguments for the existence of the Christian God, we must turn directly to these arguments. DeWolf lists six types of evidence for his rational belief. The first type is the evidence of the objectivity of abstract truth. This argument may be summarized as follows. Truths exist unchangingly prior to, and independently of, human knowledge of them. On the other hand, we cannot think of a truth as existing except as it is thought. Hence there must be a suprahuman mind that thinks these truths eternally. (Ibid., pp. 48-49.)
The second argument is called "evidence from causal law." Causal laws are systems of meanings describing the patterns exemplified in physical events, but as such they do not explain the occurrences. In man’s mind, the conjunction of will with ideas explains the expression in action of these ideas. The only reasonable explanation of the operation of causal law in nature is the belief in a supreme intelligence that combines idea and will. (Ibid., pp. 49-50.)
The third argument is called "evidence from apparent purpose in nature." The virtually universal adjustment of means to ends in the organic world indicates a purposefulness in the structures and relations of plants and animals. The long directional movement of evolution cannot be accounted for by the principle of survival of the fittest, for at certain stages of evolution the presence of an evolving organ did not at that time render the organism more fit to survive. (Ibid., pp. 50-51.)
The fourth argument, "evidence from human adaptation," follows much the same line as the third; and the fifth, "the objectivity of moral ideals," resembles the first. (Ibid., pp. 52-58. The fourth argument is the one most fully developed by DeWolf, but I have chosen to treat it in the still fuller form of Bertocci’s exposition.) The sixth evidence for theism is religious experience, which DeWolf recognizes as having limited force except for those who have enjoyed this experience. (Ibid., pp. 58-59.)
DeWolf does not claim that these arguments singly or in conjunction establish beyond possibility of doubt the existence of a personal God. This kind of certainty is an illusory ideal. (Ibid., p. 32.) What is achieved is the demonstration of the superior reasonableness of theism in relation to any other interpretation of experience and its world.
Since certainty with regard to life-determining questions is impossible, we can choose only between complete skepticism and the acceptance of the guide of probability. But the permanent suspension of judgment that is the essence of skepticism is, in fact, just as impossible as rational certainty. (Ibid.) Life must be lived in terms of decisions, and decisions must be made in terms of reasonable consideration of evidence. The only question is whether we live vigorously and committedly in terms of what we believe to be true or use our lack of certainty as an excuse for timidity and halfheartedness.
It is in this context that we must understand faith. Faith is commitment of the will to that which it is reasonable to believe is worthy of that commitment despite the lack of objective certainty that always remains. (Ibid., p.37) In relation to religious belief, faith is the decision to live as if given ideas were definitely known to be true. Our effectiveness depends upon the courage and vigor with which we act on our faith. (Ibid., pp 41-42.) But there is no justification for closing our minds to new evidence that may alter the content or object of our faith. (Ibid., pp. 43-45.)
Since philosophic considerations show the reasonableness of belief in God, this belief should play the central role in a rational faith. In itself this appeal is independent of any further commitment to a particular religious tradition. On the other hand; the understanding of God that emerges from these considerations as reasonable is a norm in terms of which the beliefs of different religions can be judged. Whatever else these traditions affirm should be in harmony with what is thus rationally given.
Despite the extreme importance that attaches to the arguments for the existence of God in DeWolf’s thought, he himself has given them only brief exposition. Of the six listed, all except the first are considered more thoroughly by Peter Bertocci in An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. His presentation of the case, like that of DeWolf, is intended to establish belief in a personal God as the most reasonable view. His argument takes the form of what he calls "the wider teleological argument," which he develops in seven steps or links. (DeWolf lists Bertocci among those whose work in philosophy should be appreciated by theologians and refers with approval to Tennant’s use of "the wider teleological argument" [The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective, pp. 36, 19] However, this may nor imply an unqualified acceptance of Bertocci’s formulation of this argument. Indeed, DeWoIf’s personal preference is for the formulation of Tennant, to whom he refers with special approval.["Biblical, Liberal, Catholic," loc. cit., p. 1304.])
The first link arises in a consideration of the evolutionary process in which life appeared from the inorganic world and achieved new levels of organization. Bertocci examines a variety of theories developed by scientific and philosophic thinkers and shows that the effort to understand this process in mechanistic terms breaks down. (Peter Anthony Bertocci, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Chs. V to VIII.) Some kind of directionality is apparent which points to a goal rather than to a blind force. Movement in the required direction demands complex conditions, which do not appear now and again as if by chance but continuously as the stable environment of life. The best way of explaining this fact is by recognizing it as the work of some kind of purposive intelligence. (Ibid., pp 332-339.)
The second link is constituted by reflection upon the relation of human thought to the world. Here again we take for granted a measure of adaptation that we cannot understand in terms of chance or mechanical causality. If we allow ourselves to wonder at the fact that our minds are marvelously attuned to, and supported by, the nature of the world, we cannot but recognize the work of a supreme orderer who provides the conditions for human thinking. (Ibid., pp. 339-344.)
We discover, however, that it is not only human thinking but also moral effort that is supported by the order of nature. If nature determined within narrow limits what man could do, there would be little room for developing morally. On the other hand, if there were little predictable regularity in the course of events, men could not learn from their past experience. The balance between freedom and order appears to be nicely calculated for moral development. Hence we may suppose that the purposive intelligence that is responsible for this balance is concerned for moral growth. This is the third link in the argument and is designed to add not so much to our confidence that a cosmic intelligence exists as to our conviction that it is good. (Ibid., pp. 347-350.) It is to the confirmation and clarification of this principle that the next links are added.
In the fourth link we turn our attention to the fact that human effort leads to the achievement of stable values that are supported and sustained by nature. Moral effort leads to moral character, which is the basis on which other values can be developed. Nature and human effort in interaction produce these values. (Ibid., pp 350-357.)
We are now prepared to ask directly what the aim of the cosmic mind may be. The preceding links suggest that he has willed a world that is good for man. But this raises many questions in view of the widespread evil in the world. Indeed, if we understood man’s good in terms of the quantitative surplus of pleasure over pain, we could hardly call our world good at all. But this is a superficial view. We have seen that our world does support our efforts to achieve values, and we may confidently assert that, in the estimation even of pleasures, qualitative rather than quantitative considerations are decisive. In these terms, we have seen that the world does support man’s efforts. It encourages him to share in the process of creation. What man achieves through his cocreativity is transmitted through civilized institutions. Moral principles are those norms by obedience to which human values can be realized and preserved. The moral order in which man lives is such that creative love on man’s part contributes to the furtherance of values. All this enables us to affirm, as the fifth link, that the world is good for us and that its creator, judging from his creation, creatively seeks our happiness. (Ibid., pp. 357-372.)
The adjustment of the world to our experience and need is not limited to the moral sphere. In the sixth link we note that aesthetic experience is a further remarkable gift of the world to man. That man should enjoy beauty certainly appears to be the intention of the creator. (Ibid., pp. 374-381.)
Finally, in the seventh link we turn to religious experience itself. For some this experience is quite sufficient reason to believe in God, but Bertocci, like DeWolf and Mascall, refuses to regard it as in any way a substitute for the hard task of philosophic thought. Only when we have seen that it is entirely reasonable to believe in a creative, purposive intelligence that wills and seeks man’s good can we confidently see, in the claims to direct experience of that intelligence, confirmation of our argument. (Ibid., pp. 382-384.)
In addition and in contrast to the kinds of arguments employed by DeWolf and Bertocci, another line of reasoning has been developed by Boston Personalists, especially by Edgar S. Brightman. Brightman’s argument may be characterized as ontological in distinction from both the metaphysical arguments of the Thomists and the cosmological arguments we have just been considering. This difference requires brief explanation, especially in view of the fact that Brightman is altogether opposed to what is usually called "the ontological argument."
Thomism requires for the acceptance of its arguments only the acknowledgment that there are finite things. Whether these things are mental or material does not matter. Once this one acknowledgment is granted, Thomism claims to present demonstrative proof of God’s existence as infinite being.
DeWolf and Bertocci generally argue from the nature of the world as our present scientific knowledge reveals it to us. They insist that the most intelligible explanation of the present condition of the world, in the light of what we know of the processes by which it developed, is that it has been formed by a purposive, loving intelligence. Like the Thomists they leave open the ontological question of the relation of matter and mind except to the extent that they assume that mind is not merely epiphenomenal.
Brightman, however, raises the ontological question centrally and builds his case for a personal God upon his solution. He calls our attention to the fact that all of our thinking begins with our conscious experience as such. This is the unavoidable datum self or shining present. (Edgar S. Brightman, Person and Reality: An Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 36, n. 3. The terms "mind," "consciousness," and even "person" are also used as virtual synonyms.) We do not need to posit a mental substance underlying the datum self and thereby expose ourselves to the objection of Hume against Berkeley. (Ibid., p. 267. This does not mean that the term "substance" is rejected, but it is applied to the experienced unity which is the person, not to an underlying unperceived unity. (Ibid., p. 199.) But we can quite empirically point to continuities within experience that are not subject to the charge of unknowability. In other terms, what we are given is not a general impersonal flow of qualities but quite concretely our own personal existence including all the qualities, sensory and nonsensory, that comprise our experience. (The rejection of a narrow view reducing the shining present to sensory qualities is crucial to the argument. [ibid., pp. 39- 40.])
Experience within the shining present points to that which is beyond it as essential to its self-understanding. This beyond which illuminates what is given Brightman calls the illuminating absent. (Ibid., pp. 31ff.) By definition this is never open to direct inspection, hence it cannot he known in the same way as the shining present. However, the task of the reason that functions in the shining present is to develop an inclusive view that is both empirically accurate and adequate with respect to the shining present and coherent in its interpretation of the illuminating absent as it illuminates that present. (Ibid., pp. 37-38, 247.)
In developing a conception of the illuminating absent we are confronted with two basic alternatives, which we may label realism and idealism. Realism argues that much, at least, of the illuminating absent is ontologically unlike the shining present, whereas idealism affirms that one ontological category is all-sufficient. The realist cannot supplement his negative assertion that the illuminating absent is nonmental by any positive account of what the nonmental can be, but in itself this is not adequate grounds to reject his thesis. (Ibid., p. 358.) Furthermore, the realist has the disadvantage of providing a less economical scheme of concepts, (Ibid., p. 356.)but this, too, leaves open the question of philosophical superiority. The decisive issue is the issue of which system leaves less sheer mystery in its final explanation. (Ibid., p. 351.)
To answer this question we must first consider Brightman’s own ontological scheme and then determine whether the introduction of non-mental entities will reduce or increase the mystery. Brightman sees the illuminating absent as composed in two clearly distinguished ways. First, it includes other shining presents or selves. Of these, our most confident examples are other persons like ourselves, but we also recognize the existence of subhuman selves in the animal world. Even an amoeba is a shining present. However, the bodies of animals, plants, and the inorganic world cannot be understood in these terms. Instead, they can be understood as the content of a cosmic mind that acts on our minds and thereby constitutes nature. (Ibid., p. 248.)
The realist either omits the cosmic mind from his scheme and treats nature as an autonomous reality of nonmental but unknown character or retains God and adds this nonmental reality. In either case, he introduces a major complexity into the ontology and adds to the mystery about relations. From any point of view it is difficult to understand how entities are effectively related to each other, but some clue can be found to the relations among minds. To introduce nonmental entities that are intimately related to minds is to introduce new problems that are insoluble and only serve to increase the mystery. (Ibid., pp. 363-364.)
The counterargument of realism is that scientific thought demands it and that the Personalist’s idea of nature is incredible. (Ibid., pp. 360-362.)Brightman devotes extensive attention to showing not only that Personalism is fully compatible with scientific thought but also that the basic categories of such thought -- time, space, motion, cause, and substance -- are better understood in terms of personalistic idealism. (Ibid., Part II.) Furthermore, the Personalist’s understanding of nature is no more strange to common sense than is the understanding of modern science. (Ibid., p. 361.) Therefore, Personalism can be shown to account for everything that realism explains, to employ fewer concepts, and to leave less mystery unsolved.
A further argument is required to show that the cosmic self, mind, or shining present is a personal God. One can readily show that the functions ascribed to this mind could not be carried out by a subpersonal entity; hence the cosmic self must be personal or superpersonal. Further, one can show that this Cosmic Person is worthy of worship.
All the arguments of the Boston Personalists converge on the one affirmation that God exists and is a Person. Further, in varying ways they point to the fact that he is personally concerned with his creatures. In view of this emphasis, Personalism faces acutely the question of why there is so much evil in the world.
At this point there appears a major debate between DeWolf, on the one hand, and Bertocci and Brightman on the other. All agree that much of the evil in the world results from man’s misuse of the freedom that God gave him. (Bertocci, op. cit., pp. 360-362; DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, p. 139.) Much other evil can be seen as needed if man is to be stimulated to inventiveness and to the achievement of high moral character. (Bertocci, op. cit., pp. 395-398; DeWoIf, A Theology of the Living Church, pp. 140-141.) The causal order needed for the achievement of values also inevitably produces suffering.59 But there seems to be a residue of evil that is neither beneficial to man’s moral growth nor caused by his sin. (Bertocci, op. cit., p. 402; DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, pp. 141-143).
Brightman and Bertocci argue that the amount of this evil is so great that we must acknowledge that God cannot be both altogether good and all-powerful. Since the whole movement of the evolutionary process has been toward a world that sustains human values, we cannot question God’s goodness toward us. Hence we must understand the slow and sometimes thwarted course of progress as an expression of God’s struggle against something that resists his will. After considering several possible interpretations, both agree that there must be within God himself a resistant given that blocks his immediate realization of all that he wills. (Bertocci, op. cit., Ch. 17.)
DeWolf, on the other hand, opposes any hypostatization of that which limits God’s will. He acknowledges that in some sense God’s power is not absolutely unlimited. As Brightman and Bertocci agree, God is limited by his delegation of power to his creatures and by his own rational nature. Furthermore, however great his power may be, it is simply what it is and not more. God’s power is limited in this sense but not in the sense that something other than it imposes a limit. (DeWoIf, A Theology of the Living Church, p. 141.)
This difference, although philosophically and theologically interesting, is not central to our concern with theological method. Hence, we leave it without further comment. What is important is the vast area of agreement among the Personalists, all of whom hold that reason by itself is capable of providing an adequate conviction of the existence of a personal God who is concerned about the world he has created.
Such a confident claim for the power of reason may appear to reduce divine revelation to a minor role. But DeWolf does not see the relation of reason and revelation in these terms. He rejects the view that what is learned through revelation is not learned through reason and that when reason suffices revelation plays no role. In opposition to this view, he argues that all knowledge in every field is based upon the conjoint working of reason and revelation. (Ibid., pp. 63-63, 33-36.)
There is no such thing as reason discovering truth apart from data that are presented to it. Likewise, the sheer presentation of stimuli does not itself create knowledge. Reason must operate upon that which is received by the mind from its environment.
Thus far all except extreme rationalists would follow the argument. But when DeWolf speaks of revelation he does not mean simply the world’s self-disclosing to man in his experience. He means quite seriously that this experience can be understood only as the product of God’s activity. Certainly, physical conditions are directly responsible for the particular character of our experience. But once we have understood that the whole order of the world and the adaptation of the mind to its environment is God’s creative work, we can no longer distinguish the natural from the divine. God’s activity is a decisive ingredient in every acquisition of knowledge. But his activity alone does not simply produce knowledge in us. We exercise our own voluntary co-operation with him in the use of the reason that he has given us. Hence, again, we can understand our knowledge only as the product of co-operation between the divine and human agents, of revelation and reason.
It is important to grasp clearly this meaning of the term "revelation." In many natural theologies the term "revelation" has a much wider reference than distinctively Christian revelation. But usually natural revelation is distinguished from other aspects of natural experience by virtue of its direct relevance to knowledge of God. In this case, experience is not called revelation because God is active in its production but because it leads the mind to think about him. Therefore, while all experience may be thought of as having some slight revelatory potentiality, attention is concentrated on quite limited aspects of it. DeWolf, by contrast, defines revelation entirely in terms of the agency of God in producing the experience. (Ibid., p. 33.) Since this agency is absolutely universal, there is no basis for distinguishing that part of experience which is especially relevant to his natural theology from that which is the basis for historical research or technological improvements. Revelation is that part of all experience which is not the result of man’s free activity.
Thus far we have operated entirely within the limits of natural theology or philosophy of religion. But DeWoIf is concerned to function specifically as a Christian theologian. If we are to make the transition from natural theology to Christian theology, we must introduce a conception of special revelation to supplement general revelation.
DeWoIf points out that in addition to the rational thinking about God that is possible on the basis of general experience, men do have particular experiences that are peculiarly illuminating to them. Sometimes, for example, a word or gesture of an acquaintance rather suddenly illuminates the motivation of his behavior in a new and decisive way. History shows that this kind of event has been crucial for the development of religious movements and institutions. An event in which an individual or a community has found significant new insight into the nature of God is what DeWolf calls "special revelation." (Ibid., pp. 65-67.)
Once again we must pay close attention to what DeWolf means. Special revelation has often been understood as an act of God in history of a different order from other historical events. It has meant, therefore, a supernatural occurrence to be distinguished from natural occurrences by the directness of God’s intervention. DeWolf does not think in these terms. He has established once and for all that every event involves the activity of God. He does not believe that this activity functions more directly in some events than in others. (Ibid., pp 65, 66) An event is not objectively a special revelation by virtue of God’s special act in it. Rather, any event is a special revelation when in fact it functions as such for some individual or group.
This means that the concept of special revelation can be developed within a strictly historical context. In recognizing that a great diversity of events has functioned as specially revelatory, we are asking for no new act of credulity. Once we have established that God exists, and once we have accepted the fact that human religion is related to him, we must acknowledge that the diversity of religions reflects in part the diversity of experiences which have been decisive for the particular ways in which God is understood in the several traditions.
We must also note that there is a positive valuation of special revelation when religion is understood in this way. Although particular beliefs are not guaranteed by the revelatory experiences that lie behind them, we do see these experiences as genuinely revelatory. Special revelation occurs only when God’s presence is actually felt and when through the experience something about his nature and will is grasped. (Ibid., p. 67.) Special revelation does provide a basis for knowledge about God.
Here we find a crucial doctrine that allows for a transition from natural theology to Christian theology. As long as we see the diversity of experience of God as so much data from which we must generalize about the nature of religions, we must remain at the level of philosophy of religion. If, however, we see that some events give new insight into the nature of God, then the exposition of the truth about God that is given in such special revelations becomes a partly independent discipline. DeWolf understands Christian theology as such a discipline. It does not simply describe what Christians have experienced and believed. Rather it formulates critically the truth that has been learned through Christian experience. (Ibid., p. 18.) Since what it formulates is the truth, its affirmations are not merely confessions relevant to Christians; they are assertions that are claimed to be true for all men.
At the same time, however, it is clear that the problem of relativism does not disappear. Adherents of other faiths have equal right and duty to formulate the truths that their experiences have given them. Presumably these truths are binding also for Christians. This fact raises problems to which DeWolf is only beginning to give extended attention. (See DeWolf, "The Interpretation of Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions," The Theology of the Christian Mission, Cerald H. Anderson, ed., pp. 199-212; and Acknowledgments of Non-Christian Contributions to Christian Faith, the Boston University Lecture for 1960-1961.)
DeWolf guards against overenthusiastic dogmatic claims by the adherents of each tradition by insisting that theology must be a critical discipline. This means not only that clarity and coherence are required within it but also that the theologian must not make affirmations that are in conflict with what is known about God on the grounds of general revelation. Every theology should presuppose the truth of the basic understanding of God, man, and the world that natural theology has attained. (DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, p. 49)
The Christian theologian must always keep in mind the knowledge about God and man that is given by natural theology and then ask with respect to each topic what further light is thrown upon it by the special experience of the Christian community. This experience is not limited to a few extraordinary events but has been articulated into a tradition embodied in the Bible. Hence it is especially the Bible to which the theologian turns in his quest for a richer understanding of religious reality.
We need hardly note at this point that the authority that the Bible enjoys in this view is not that of an infallible oracle. (Ibid., Ch. 8) DeWolf does not hesitate to distinguish more and less inspired passages (Ibid., pp. 76-77, 82-83.) and to subject all to critical reason. Both what is known of God from natural theology and the message of the high moments of the Biblical revelation itself can be used as criteria. (Ibid., pp. 84-85.) The Bible is understood as a source of insight and illumination, not as a final norm by which every affirmation is to be tested. We are to accept it as authoritative in religious matters because we recognize its unique spiritual wisdom, not because we claim an objective supernatural guarantee for its accuracy.
Given these methodological principles, it is not surprising to find that much of what DeWolf as a Christian theologian tells us about God closely resembles what Bertocci as a philosopher tells us about God. The accent on God’s righteousness and love may be heightened, and DeWolf resists Bertocci’s emphasis on God’s finitude. Throughout his discussion, DeWoIf supports his own position from the Bible and in the process he deals with questions of Biblical interpretation. But what is impressive is that his reading of the Bible extensively supports and reinforces the understanding of God that is also derivable from philosophy.
Much the same can be said for DeWolf’s theological doctrine of man. His discussion of man’s dependence, limits, moral responsibility, freedom, and survival of death parallels closely the position developed by Bertocci on philosophical grounds. Once again Christian experience is understood as reinforcing natural theology rather than as adding wholly new beliefs to it.
The situation here is not unlike that in Thomism. Both have great confidence in the power of reason to show the truth of many doctrines that have often been regarded as dependent upon special revelation. This confidence is, however, less qualified among the Boston Personalists than among modern Thomists like Mascall. Mascall recognizes that the kind of reasoning on which Thomistic natural theology depends became possible only through the historical impact of special revelation. This is because the particular vision of entities in the world as finite existents cannot be regarded as universally prevalent in all human cultures. We saw that the systematic implications of this fact for the relation of natural and revealed theology were not fully faced in Mascall’s own work.
The Boston Personalists do not see a similar need for moderating their claim to the objective rationality of their position. This is because they base their primary arguments upon the understanding of the world that has been produced by the advance of scientific knowledge. Presumably they recognize that their formulations could not have been employed apart from the historic fact of scientific achievement, but given the virtual universality of the acceptance of science, this limitation does not relativize the results in any important sense. One may ask whether future scientific advances may not render present conclusions out of date, and Personalists would not rule out this possibility. But since the Personalists only claim that we should now act in terms of what it is now reasonable to believe, this is no objection to their system.
The contrast with Mascall may be stated in a further way. Mascall recognizes that many people do not actually perceive the world in such a way as to have within their consciousness the starting point of the argument for the existence of God. However, he insists that the argument itself is demonstrative. (Mascall, Existence and Analogy, p xi.) For one who has the starting point, God’s existence is objectively certain whatever fluctuation there may be in his subjective certitude. For the Boston Personalists the data for reasoning about God are accessible to anyone who will take the trouble to read the appropriate scientific treatises. No special state of mind is required other than the openness and sensitivity that are necessary for any learning experience. (The data of Christian theology are not, of course, accessible apart from the moral and spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, but I do not understand DeWolf to say that this applies to the data of natural theology. A Theology of the Living Church, p. 20.)
Thus the starting point is, for practical purposes, universal. The arguments, however, can show only the superior reasonableness of one interpretation with respect to others. They can lead to a judgment of objective probability. The reasonable man will adapt himself to this situation by treating such objective probability as if it justified subjective certitude, although he will remain open to new evidence.
In principle the approach of the Thomists means that special revelation may supplement natural knowledge of God but cannot change it. That which is objectively certain is beyond alteration. For Boston Personalism, on the other hand, the data of special revelation might affect the scale of probabilities on some point. In practice, however, it is Thomism in which the specifically Christian affirmations introduce the greater tensions with the philosophical doctrines. This is because the philosophical arguments employed lead to affirmations about God that seem to conflict with the personalistic thought of the Bible. The basic harmony in Boston Personalism is due to the fact that it regards the philosophical evidence as pointing precisely to an understanding of God as Person. Hence in Boston Personalism the convergence and harmony of philosophy and theology are almost complete.
Thomism regards its argument for the existence of God as leading to a conception of God’s transcendence that enables us to accept all manner of occurrences in strictly supernatural and suprarational terms. Boston Personalism, on the other hand, basing its understanding of God upon rational probabilities, has no place for this kind of supernaturalism. Hence, in its theological expression, as well as in its philosophy, it limits itself to the rationally plausible. This might seem to be a very restrictive principle indeed, but in fact it does not prove to be so.
DeWolf shows that the occurrence of miracles, (DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, pp. 126-127.) the existence and activity of angels, (Ibid., pp. 128-129.) and judgment after death (Ibid., pp 285-286.) are all intelligible ideas and reasonable beliefs coherent with all else that we know about God, man, and the world. Whether or not we have sufficient evidence to accept any particular belief of this sort remains a separate question, but at this point the special experience of the Christian community adds considerable weight of probability to otherwise plausible beliefs. Biblical accounts must be critically examined, but this does not imply that we should approach them with an incredulous spirit.
The crucial test of the harmony of theology with philosophy is found in Christology. This doctrine cannot be developed simply in terms of natural theology. Furthermore, many of the historic Christian affirmations about Jesus Christ would break the bounds of possibility imposed by personalistic natural theology. We turn now to a brief summary of DeWoIf’s understanding of Jesus.
Jesus must be seen first of all to be a man among men. (Ibid., pp. 225-226, 234.) He grew and developed normally, had human intellectual limitations, and experienced temptation and suffering. (Ibid., pp. 227-229.) He was uniquely endowed for his unique vocation, but nothing about his native equipment forced him to perform any distinctive mission. (Ibid., pp. 248, 254.) DeWolf makes it clear that, ontologically and by nature, therefore, Jesus was a man and not God. (Ibid., pp. 243-244.) At this point DeWolf stands unequivocally in the liberal tradition and, he believes, in the Synoptic tradition against some of the creeds. Furthermore, he rejects the reliability of the stories of the virgin birth both on historical grounds and because they misrepresent Jesus’ status as human. (Ibid., pp. 231-232.)
If Jesus was a man in the full, unqualified sense, he was free to fulfill or not to fulfill God’s will for his life. What makes Jesus unique is that the mission God asked of him was one spiritually decisive for all time. While everyone is called to take a special individual place in God’s Kingdom, Jesus was called to reveal to men the Kingdom itself. Because this mission was so distinctive, it required special historical preparation and need never be repeated. (Ibid., pp. 248-249.) Whether other men were called to fulfill this mission and failed to do so, we do not know. (Ibid., p. 253.) We do know that Jesus was called and that he voluntarily accepted God’s will for his life. This total devotion to God’s will also marks Jesus off from other men." (Ibid., pp. 248-251.)
Because Jesus wholly subordinated his will to God’s will, he came to share God’s purposes. Thereby he became revelation to us in two ways. As man he shows us what man can become as he yields himself wholly to God. As one who shared God’s purposes he shows us what those purposes are and how they impinge upon daily life. Therefore, he may justly be called the Word of God. (Ibid., 251-253.)
The revelation that we find in Jesus, and especially in his voluntary death on the cross, does not merely enlighten us as to the true character of God and the human situation. It also moves us to that repentance of sin and acceptance of God’s forgiving love which bring us to reconciliation with God. (Ibid., p. 267.) Hence, through revelation we experience also reconciliation as an objective change in our relationship to God. (Ibid., pp. 268-269)
Another Christian doctrine that DeWolf does not derive from natural theology is that of the Trinity. For many theologians the doctrine of the Trinity is necessitated by their Christology, in which they declare Jesus to be the incarnation of a divine pre-existent being who is equal with God. Since only God can be equal with God, this being must be God. Yet he must not be identical with the Father to whom Jesus prayed. For these and other reasons a second person is introduced into the one Godhead. Similar considerations lead to regarding the Holy Spirit as the third person.
This motive for trinitarian formulation is mentioned only to show that it does not operate for DeWolf. Thereby he is saved from a doctrine that would be severely in tension with the rational view that God is one supreme Person. To say that God is three persons, as orthodoxy has done, is clearly incompatible with the assertion that he is one person. Since at least some forms of traditional trinitarianism are impossible for a Personalist, and since the usual reason for adopting the trinitarian position does not operate in DeWolf’s theology, one might expect a direct acceptance of unitarianism.
However, DeWolf believes that the Biblical basis for formulating trinitarian doctrine is preserved in his thought, and that a trinitarian doctrine can be formulated that is harmonious with his Personalism. He accepts what he understands to be the New Testament view that God the Father is the ground of all that is, that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word, and that the Holy Spirit is continually present to us in guidance and comfort. (Ibid., p. 274. For fuller discussion of the Trinity, see The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective, Ch. V. DeWoIf has recently called attention to the increased role of this doctrine in his thought, especially as expressed in the structure of The Enduring Message of the Bible. ("Biblical, Liberal, Catholic," loc. cit., p. 1305.) He insists also that the God we know in these three ways is himself unqualifiedly one.
Furthermore, he argues, we would misunderstand the historic creeds if we supposed that when they spoke of three persons they meant persons in our sense, or specifically in the sense in which Personalism speaks of God as the supreme Person. Although some contemporaries have moved in this direction, the creeds are better understood when we remember that the Latin word originally referred to masks worn by actors. Therefore, we are faithful both to the Bible and to the deeper sense of the creeds when we assert that one personal God is given in three modes of revelation. DeWolf does not object seriously if his view is labeled as a form of Modalism, whether or not this is taken as an accusation of formal heresy. (De Wolf, A Theology of the Living Church, pp. 276-279.)
The foregoing is sufficient to illustrate the remarkably consistent procedure followed by DeWolf. The fundamental understanding of God and his relation to the world provided by natural theology is never challenged or substantively altered by the statement of Christian theology. On the contrary, it is given further support in terms of distinctively Christian experience. This experience requires that special attention be given to understanding the events that have been decisive for it and the way in which those events exercise their influence. Hence discussions of the authority of the Bible and of Christology and the church are added to what can be learned directly from natural theology. These additions are made in terms of what it is reasonable to believe on the grounds of natural theology and what the experience of Christians gives sufficient evidence for believing.
There is no leap as in Mascall into a realm of supernatural affirmations in some tension with the natural theology. There is, however, a further specification and enrichment of what is left undetermined in natural theology.
The existence of a personal creator-God is the most central assumption of DeWolf’s theology, and this belief is established primarily in natural theology. (Without rejecting this view, DeWolf has recently stressed that it is in its specifically Christian form that theism is most defensible rationally. ("Biblical, Liberal, Catholic," loc. cit., p. 1305. See also a passage added in the 1960 revision of A Theology of the Living Church, pp. 59-60.) Hence we may devote our primary attention to the evaluation of the ways in which philosophy functioning as natural theology supports this belief. If any of the arguments advanced demonstrate that belief in a personal, creator-God is the most reasonable of positions, then the theological position developed on this basis will have great strength. If the arguments fail in their purpose, then the theological method that assumes their adequacy must be reconceived.
The obvious objection against relying heavily upon the arguments advanced by Personalists for the existence and nature of God is that most contemporary philosophers do not accept them. If we are to base our lives upon a calculation of rational probabilities, we might suppose that we would place great weight upon whatever consensus there may be among leading thinkers. In some ages this would give considerable support to Christian faith, but in our own time this is hardly the situation. Hence we must be persuaded of the reasonableness of believing in God in spite of the fact that the grounds for such belief are not widely accepted.
The Personalists are far from unaware of this problem. They do not offer us, therefore, a general philosophical consensus but, rather, specific rational grounds for belief. They share constructively in the philosophical discussion of the facts that confront us, and they ask us to accept their conclusions on the strength of their arguments.
However, to find a clue to the problem that lies behind these arguments we must ask why they have no greater acceptance among contemporary philosophers who should be in position to judge their philosophic worth. Mascall, we noted, held that the lack of acceptance of his arguments results from failure to contemplate the world in the right way. But the Personalists do not explicitly ask for any comparable mind-set or practice in contemplation as the basis for accepting, for example, the wider teleological argument. Hence, the failure to accept their conclusions would seem to be due to ignoring or misunderstanding the question, to a negative prejudice, or to lack of persuasiveness of the argument.
This does not mean that Personalists suppose that reason can operate in abstraction from the ongoing life processes or even from basic faith commitments. (DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, revised edition, pp. 44-45.) But they do not seem to regard the faith commitments required as distinctively Christian or as historically conditioned in any decisive way. DeWolf, for example, notes that the rationalist must have faith that there is kinship between reason and reality. He must commit himself to basic moral principles, such as honesty, necessary for the successful pursuit of knowledge. He must believe in the inherent value of some goals and achievements. (L. Harold DeWolf, The Religious Revolt Against Reason, pp. 176-178.)
Although there is no indication that DeWolf supposes that this faith, required for the functioning of reason, is historically dependent on Christian revelation, he does not exclude this interpretation. In his definition of natural theology he states that it is logically independent of Biblical revelation and faith. (DeWolf, The Case for Theology in Liberal Prospective, p.30.) This definition is open to the interpretation that the data for natural theology factually depend on Christian faith but that we have no basis for asserting that this dependence is logically necessary. If this is what DeWolf means, we should call his natural theology a Christian philosophy or Christian natural theology (For clarification of these terms, see n. 83 in Chapter 2.) to make clear its actual derivation from Christian faith, and we should not expect it to be rationally acceptable to persons with quite different backgrounds. If what DeWoIf calls natural theology can be regarded in this way, most of the objections raised below are irrelevant.
However, this interpretation of DeWolf raises more questions than it solves. First, it seems to conflict with his statements that man can and does formulate natural theologies that are correct as far as they go -- presumably independently of distinctively Christian revelation; (DeWolf, The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective, p.30.)that natural theology can provide a common platform with non-Christians; (Ibid., p.33.) and that the arguments of natural theology can rationally persuade non-Christians of theism. (Ibid., p. 34.) Second, this interpretation would demand a recognition of a theological circle and its complex methodological consequences that is not found in DeWolf’s writings. For these reasons, I am interpreting DeWolf as affirming that belief in a personal creator-God is neither factually nor systematically dependent upon Christian revelation, that on the contrary it is presupposed by Christian thought on the basis of independent rational considerations.
I wish to argue, however, that in fact the validity of these rational considerations does depend on a distinctive apprehension of the world in much the same way as in the case of Thomism. If one accepts fundamentally the need for the kind of explanation of the data that Personalists undertake to give, their explanations have considerable persuasive power. If, however, one does not see the data as requiring explanation in this sense, then the whole argument, however cogent it may be in itself, appears simply empty (Bertocci is aware of this situation, but the need for explanation is so clear to him that he does not take it very seriously. Cf. op. cit., pp. 280-281.)
The point may be seen most readily by considering the distinction of description and explanation that is crucial to DeWolf’s second argument explicitly and to his other arguments and that of Bertocci implicitly. Is there a real difference between description and explanation, and, if so, what is it?
A certain kind of common-sense point of view (which I share with the Personalists) holds that there is a difference. A description simply asserts how a thing is, and an explanation tells why it is as it is. In scientific inquiry, however, it has become increasingly clear that an explanation is only a more inclusive description. An isolated phenomenon is held to be explained when the formula that describes it can be shown to be derived from a formula that describes a wider range of phenomena. Hence scientists, and those philosophers who seek to escape the endless confusions of philosophy by staying close to the proven methods of science, hold that the distinction between description and explanation is only one of degree. A complete description of the phenomenon would also be its complete explanation if the description showed the mathematical relations of all the formal patterns described.
If this scientific point of view is adopted, most of the above arguments are entirely undercut. A complete description of causal law constitutes the only explanation for which it is meaningful to ask. A complete description of evolutionary development leaves no room for some other kind of theory that DeWolf and Bertocci see as explanatory. The ideas of eternal truths and objective moral principles are also seen as illusory. If the truths of which we speak are mathematical or formal truths, they are understood as tautological. They come into existence with the definitions that entail them. If the truths in question are empirical truths, they are functions of human experience and have no eternal suprahuman status.
If we argue against the scientifically oriented philosopher that there is, nevertheless, an immediate perception of an ultimate difference between explanation and description, we must recognize clearly what we are doing. The idea of explanation with which we are now dealing is derived from our experience of our own purposes affecting our acts. When I write these words, a complete description of my act would subsume this interaction of forces under general laws of such interaction. But I feel that the explanation of my writing these words lies in my desire to clarify and communicate my thoughts. The category of explanation may then be applied to other persons and to higher animals. How much farther it may be applied is a question of great importance. It is clear that we can decide how far to apply it only by determining the pertinent resemblances of the object in question to ourselves.
Now we must ask to what degree the cosmos as a whole resembles us with respect to its entertainment of purposes and capacity to put them into effect. That is, is the cosmos personal? But how shall we decide such questions? If we believe that the distinctive category of explanation can be applied to cosmic activity, we must suppose that the cosmos is personal, for there is no such thing as a nonpersonal explanation that is other than generalized description. But we are then assuming what we are supposedly inquiring about. Either the cosmos is personal and we do right to seek an explanation of the world, or the cosmos is not personal and we can only describe phenomena. This much we can show, but it is difficult to see how any arguments of the sort used by DeWolf and Bertocci can demonstrate the superior rationality of one position over the other.
The merit of Bertocci’s work is that it helps to destroy an intermediate conception of explanation that often confuses the real issue. Many have thought they had given an explanation in distinction from a description of an event when they fixed its place in a deterministic order. Objective causality has been supposed to work on the model of a machine. As long as the mechanical conceptuality could be used, the emptiness of this kind of explanation was not recognized except by a few philosophers. Hume showed that in the objective view we cannot in principle attribute necessity to the relation between two events however frequently they succeed one another in a regular way. But an important psychological need to understand was fulfilled by subsuming events under a mechanical model.
Still others, when the mechanical model collapsed in the life sciences, employed a language of forces or emergence. Bertocci does well to show us that such terms in no sense suggest explanations of anything. (Ibid., pp. 34ff.) Clearly, if we are to explain rather than describe we must do so in terms of purposes, and if we are to explain cosmic phenomena we must do so in terms of cosmic purpose. The halfway houses between positivism and theism can be successfully demolished from either side. But the result depends upon whether, with the abandonment of such intermediate types of "explanation," the demand for an explanation in distinction from a description remains at all. If it does, then the case for theism requires only the demonstration that the purposes of the persons within the cosmos cannot account for the existence, order, or change of the cosmos as a whole. To such an end effective arguments can be formulated. But for those who give up the demand for explanation, any argument will be irrelevant.
Much the same difficulty is more commonly raised in terms of meaningfulness. With some diversity among themselves, the dominant schools of recent philosophy have tried to relate meaning closely to verification. The meaning of a statement consists in some way in its observable implications. If I assert that a given object is square, one may measure the sides and angles and thus test my assertion. The meaning of the assertion consists in its testable implications. If I assert that there is rational life on planets circling distant stars, it is possible to conceive of certain observations that could support my statement even if we are not now in a position to make such observations, and indeed even if man can never in fact make the required observations. But when I assert that the theological order of the universe is the product of a supreme intelligence, there seems to be nothing implied thereby of a testable sort. (Note, however, the interesting argument of Hick that on the hypothesis of survival of death, evidence might be attained for or against the truth of the affirmation of God’s existence. On this basis Hick argues that the affirmation is meaningful whether or not it is true. [Faith and Knowledge: A Modern Introduction to the Problem of Religious Knowledge, Ch. 7.] The whole discussion is very fluid at present, and I do not want to imply any clear consensus against the meaningfulness of affirmations about God. The point is only that in the present situation the meaningfulness of such language cannot be simply assumed.) Hence many philosophers declare such statements to be meaningless.
We may, of course, reasonably complain that a statement is meaningful whether or not it can be verified, that truth and falsity consist in the correspondence of an idea to a reality whether or not we can prove this correspondence, and that the claim that a supreme intelligence exists either corresponds or fails to correspond to an enduring reality. But once again, we can only confront one philosophical orientation -- one now prevalent -- with another that happens now to lack wide acceptance in the philosophic community. (I do not wish to press the question of the relative strength of the two philosophical orientations. Although I believe that my judgment of the dominance of the orientation alien to Boston Personalism is correct, all that is necessary to my argument is to point out the seriousness of the dispute. It should go without saying that current popularity of a position is no index to its "truth." The only reason for introducing this point is to stress that the theologian who today appeals to philosophy for support cannot appeal to any philosophical consensus but must defend the philosophy to which he appeals against vigorous philosophical attack. I am in my criticisms questioning the adequacy of the Personalists’ defense.) Hence we do not escape the difficulty that our arguments persuade us only if we already share in a particular perspective.
The Personalists appeal to the criterion of empirical or comprehensive coherence to justify their philosophical position. (Bertocci, op. cit., pp.55-59; DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, pp. 28-29.)I have already indicated my own view that when we once grant the need for explanation in distinction from description theism wins out over the pseudo solutions of materialism and creative evolution. But this criterion is useless for establishing the right of the demand for explanation in the first place. In so far as the understanding of comprehensive coherence includes the idea of explanation, it begs the question that in our day is most acute.
The criterion of empirical or comprehensive coherence does have value when we turn from the basic justification of introducing the question of God to the further question as to his nature. For example, Personalists have faced the question of how God’s goodness can be affirmed in the light of the evil in the world with candor and originality. In doing this they have been guided by the need to bring their assertions about God into coherent relationship with the data of honest observation of the world. They have made important contributions in demonstrating again in the twentieth century the reasonableness of Christian theism.
Systematically, however, Personalism assumes as rationally given a set of beliefs that are in fact radically disputable. The issues at stake cannot be settled by appeal to probability, for no clear meaning can be assigned to this idea that is neutral to the disputants. Hence, one’s acceptance of Personalism cannot be finally on the grounds that Personalists themselves have offered, but rather on the grounds of a much more basic decision. Until one has seriously explored how that decision is to be made, one is not in a position to settle questions about the relation of faith to reason or about the relation of Christian theology to natural theology.
This objection to Personalism might not be serious if professional philosophers alone found its philosophic assumptions dubious. Actually, however, Personalism’s assumptions run deeply counter to the increasingly prevalent mood of our day. Personalism has great confidence in the reliability of a kind of common-sense speculation about the cosmos as a whole, whereas sophisticated moderns generally find such confidence naive and out of date. Even when sympathetic to such inquiry they find the results too suspect and humanly unreal to serve as a basis for ultimate decisions of life and death. Hence, it is not philosophers only, but spiritually sensitive moderns generally, who feel an ultimate frustration and emptiness before Personalism’s staggering claims about reason’s ability to know God.
Although this discussion is relevant to most of the arguments of DeWolf and Bertocci it is not equally relevant to that summarized above from Brightman. The objection to DeWolf and Bertocci has been that they presuppose a basic way of apprehending reality and understanding the function of reason that is radically at issue in our day. Hence we should direct our attention to how that issue can be settled, and it seems at least likely that we will be driven to acknowledge the role of some kind of faith at that point. Such acknowledgment would throw an entirely different light upon the character of natural theology and on the relation of faith to reason.
Brightman’s argument deals directly with the most fundamental of philosophic questions, and although in his case, too, the need to explain rather than simply describe plays a decisive role, it is by no means so simply assumed. This is to say that Brightman raises directly the question of the nature of being as such, and his argument for the existence of God follows from his answer to this question. Critics may object that the raising of this question is just as alien to the modern temper as are the less technical speculations of the other Personalists, but against this objection we may note an increasing recognition that the long effort to avoid the ontological questions shows signs of collapsing. Analysis shows that those who have claimed to avoid this question have in fact operated with onto-logical assumptions. Even those who restrict themselves to the study of language cannot avoid some judgment as to the relation between language and things.
Brightman’s argument in essence is very simple. Our present experience points beyond itself for its own intelligibility and existence. This beyond includes other shining presents that explain a part of our own shining present. That which cannot be explained in these terms must be explained either as the work of a cosmic shining present, or as something wholly different in nature from shining presents, or as some combination of the two. Of the three alternatives, the second and third are more complicated, less clear, and leave us with greater mystery than the first. Hence it is reasonable to believe in a cosmic shining present. Further analysis of its functions shows it to have the properties of a personal God.
If we are to criticize Brightman seriously we must ask whether the comparison of personalistic idealism and realism in fact shows the superiority of the former to the degree claimed. Or can we suggest a kind of realism, or compromise between idealism and realism which is equal or superior by Brightman’s own criteria?
I believe that if realism is understood as materialism, Brightman’s objections are well taken. However, Brightman usually identifies realism with any doctrine of a reality that is not conscious. The datum self or shining present is equated by Brightman with conscious awareness or experience. Might we not posit unconscious subjectivity as real without introducing the weaknesses of materialism?
Before attempting to sketch such a position, we need to look closely at the difficulties into which Brightman’s principles lead him. First, he must draw a very sharp line between entities that are selves or shining presents and those that are not, and he must do so on the basis of his conjecture as to the presence or absence of consciousness. He judges that an amoeba is conscious whereas a cell in an organized body is not. Whether he is correct in this conjecture is not the point. What we must note is that where-ever he draws the line he must separate that which exists in itself as an object both for the human and the divine mind and that which exists only as the content of God’s thought. Thus empirical differences which seem to be matters of degree must be taken as clues to the most fundamental of all ontological distinctions.
A second difficulty appears in understanding the unconscious in man. Brightman has two choices. Either it is really unconscious, in which case it belongs exhaustively to the divine environment of man, or it is really conscious, only inaccessible to the normal personal self. (This is Brightman’s favored view.) Each alternative has strange consequences, which we can consider in the reverse order.
If the unconscious is in fact a consciousness, it is also a datum self or shining present. There are, then, two or more selves associated with each human body, both of them conscious. All of them presumably have considerable influence on the behavior of the body, including its speech. Do I then identify my friend with one among the several conscious selves in the body? By what means do I distinguish him from the others? By the element of rationality? But are we to think of conscious selves devoid of all rationality? Surely what we usually mean by personality or character must be the conjoint product of all these conscious selves; yet it is this which excites our esteem and love.
Am I to understand my own relation with the other selves inhabiting my own body in the same way as my relations with persons inhabiting other bodies? If the relation is radically different, do we not surrender the economy that was one of the advantages over realism by introducing now a third radically distinct way in which relations between selves occur? (The first two are relations between created selves and between such selves and nature understood as God’s immediate "physical" activity. (Ibid., p. 275.) There is also a still different relation between the present of the person and his past. In the philosophy of Whitehead and Hartshorne all of these can be reduced to one.) These questions and objections are not systematically decisive, but they do indicate that Brightman’s ontology raises difficulties that increase the mystery he seeks to reduce.
If we follow the alternative of treating the unconscious as truly not conscious, we draw a still sharper line between consciousness and the unconscious. (In this view the subconscious would be classed with the body as part of the environment of the person, which Brightman holds is simply and literally God in action in co-operation with the human self). Consciousness is actually extant as an entity in the world created by God and given real autonomy. Unconsciousness is the direct working of God for consciousness, with no being of any sort in itself. Here again, very slight empirical differences might become the basis for positing an absolute ontological difference.
Consider for example, a dull discomfort in one’s leg. At one moment one may attend to it and bring it into full consciousness. Then he shifts attention to something else and for some time "forgets" about it. At other times he is very dimly aware of it at the edges of his consciousness without attending to it. At all times it qualifies his mood to some extent, adding, perhaps, to his irritability. What seems to occur often is a very gradual fading from consciousness correlative with the degree of intensity of concentration on other subjects. Sometimes one realizes suddenly that for some moments the discomfort has greatly increased. It seems rather arbitrary to identify the exact point at which the discomfort passes from what may without qualification be called consciousness into total unconsciousness. Yet, in Brightman’s view either this line must be drawn and must be held to have decisive ontological significance, or else the discomfort must be held to pass over to another self inhabiting the same body.
Consider also the phenomenon of subliminal sensation, which has direct consequences for motivation. Must we say that the words flashed upon the screen are simply not experienced at all? They seem to be experienced unconsciously. But in Brightman’s view this event must be understood as existing only in God or else as occurring in a self other than the one motivated to act by the stimulus.
Still another difficulty occurs in connection with sleep. Brightman recognizes dreams as a mode of consciousness, but while the sleeper is not dreaming he is not a self at all. (Presumably one or more of the conscious selves might be awake or dreaming during this time, but we are considering one of these selves as the sleeper,) Indeed his existence is only as an unconscious entity, hence as no entity at all except in the divinely constituted natural environment of waking selves. The discontinuity introduced by sleep into personal existence is, therefore, of ontological significance. In each dream and in each awakening an ontological transformation or recreation occurs. Once again, however gradually one may rouse, some exact point in the continuum must be identified as that at which an absolute ontological change occurs.
It is this feature of Brightman’s position which I must confess personally strains my credulity. This does not make it philosophically untenable, but it does suggest that we should consider alternatives in which the ontological judgments are less artificially related to experience. (Bertocci, however, in Brightman’s name does regard incredibility as a relevant philosophical consideration,) If in experience we seem to find a continuum of being rather than two radically different ontological orders, and a continuum of experience in which consciousness shades off into unconsciousness, then an ontology that expresses this continuum would seem more coherent with experience than one which introduces radical dualities.
For this reason, we should consider the idea that experience or subjectivity is a broader category than consciousness. Psychologists find it useful to think in these terms, and we have seen that in personal experience it is difficult to draw a sharp line around consciousness. Brightman has already radicalized the idea of consciousness when he extends it to the "subconscious," dreams, and amoebae, but his limitation of experience to consciousness forces him somewhere to draw a line of utmost ontological import. If we argue that already in his application, consciousness has lost clear, distinctive meaning, and that it would be better to agree that certainly there is experience in the "subconscious," in dreams, and in amoebae, although different from what we usually mean by conscious experience, then we can be free to extend the one category of experience still farther. Essentially we mean only that all these entities are something for themselves as well as functions in and for the experience of others. Then cells and molecules and electrons as well as mosquitoes and amoebae can be acknowledged to have experience.
Brightman refers to the position suggested here as panpsychism and asserts that its acceptance would have little effect upon his conclusions. (If he means only that the status of a cell in a multicellular organism is not systematically important, this is readily granted. The issue is whether a line is to be drawn anywhere between that which has some reality in itself and that which is only as the direct activity of God.) I prefer to call it pansubjectivism to avoid special connotations of the psyche, but whatever the position is called, its adoption does affect Bright-man s argument. This argument moves from the fact of elements of experience that cannot be caused by other human and subhuman minds to the probability of a cosmic mind. The position suggested here allows for the attribution of all experiences to the causal efficacy of human and subhuman subjects. This does not mean that no argument for the existence of God can be developed from this position, but it does mean that this argument must take a different form from the one we have been considering. (The dependence of my counterproposals on Whitehead and Harthorne is gladly acknowledged. For both these men, the developed position does require the affirmation of God’s existence.)
It has been necessary to devote some time to this discussion in order to meet Brightman on his own grounds. We could have simply noted that in his case as in that of DeWolf and Bertocci certain fundamental assumptions underlying the whole argument point to prior commitments. But this would have been unfair in view of Brightman’s extensive consideration of the categories and his explicit arguments against positivistic thought. (I believe, nevertheless, that in Brightman’s thought as in everyone’s thought there is a circularity of starting point and conclusion that could be pointed out on careful analysis.) Positivism, he holds, would be justified only if the mind’s natural quest for a more inclusive understanding broke down." Even then it would itself have presuppositions that pointed beyond its own doctrines. Hence, at least the effort at a wider philosophic viewpoint seems to be justified. Once this quest is allowed, no criteria seem fairer than those of empirical coherence, and the arguments on these grounds against materialistic realism appear strong.
I have tried to suggest, however, that another view is more empirical and more coherent. Specifically, what I have called pansubjectivism is more economical in that it understands all of our experience epistemologically as having one rather than two or three types of causes, and it is more coherent with experience in that it accepts gradations as such and is not forced to impose ontological dualities where experience suggests a continuum. The chief objection that may be expected from Brightman’s point of view is that we cannot imagine an experience that is not conscious. But we cannot imagine an amoeba’s kind of consciousness either, or God’s, except in the sense that we can imaginatively project a continuum of which we can grasp a small range of much greater distances in either direction. Once this kind of imagination is allowed, pansubjectivity is also allowed.
If pansubjectivity is as reasonable an interpretation of our total experience as Brightman’s Personalism, then the inadequacy of this support for theology is shown. Natural theology must show the superior reasonableness of belief in the personal creator-God of Christian faith. I have argued that the particular way in which Brightman argues for this belief can be countered by a theory that does at least equal justice to the data and that disallows Brightman’s argument for the existence of God. Even those readers who find Brightman’s cosmology more plausible than my counterproposals should be forced to acknowledge that the possibility of such counterproposals indicates the highly subjective, if not arbitrary, character of adopting Brightman’s conclusion as the conclusion of objective, neutral reason.
The foregoing criticisms of the Personalists’ arguments for the existence of God are not intended as refutations. In my opinion all their arguments have some weight, although I would wish to reformulate most of them. I have tried to show two limitations of these arguments. First, those personalists who attempt to operate without commitment to a particular ontology make basic assumptions that they cannot justify adequately in their own terms. Second, Brightman’s argument, based upon the development of an ontology, fails to exclude counterproposals that undermine his conclusions. The possibility of a more rigorous ontology’s eventuating in belief in a personal God is not excluded by these criticisms, but I wish to suggest that the ideal of a purely objective rational conclusion supportive of personalistic faith is unlikely of realization.
We have given rather extended attention to the arguments for the existence of God advanced by the Personalists because we will not be able to understand the predominant theological view of the status of these arguments until we have seriously explored their limitations. None of the theologians to be treated from this point on in this book acknowledge reliance upon arguments for the existence of God.
Only Wieman can be regarded as avowedly accepting natural theology, and in his case we will see that the whole effort is to turn from speculative to purely descriptive categories. As long as one is secure in his conviction that reason provides an adequate basis for faith in a personal God, this situation must appear strange and to Christian theologians, by and large, eccentric. If, however, we recognize not only intellectually but also personally or existentially that reason supports faith only when it begins with a self-understanding or vision of reality that is not shared by the intellectual leadership of our time, then we can understand the fear of acknowledging dependence upon natural theology that characterizes modern theology as a whole.
The opponents of natural theology often introduce a second objection. They argue that the idea of God that emerges from philosophic speculation is alien to the living God of the Bible. (For DeWolf’s defense against this charge, see The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective, pp. 22-30. Cf. also The Religious Revolt Against Reason, Ch. 3.) My critique of Mascall in the preceding chapter follows this line of thought in part. However, I believe that it is largely irrelevant to the criticism of Personalism. One may argue that Personalism tends to minimize the gulf that is felt between man and God in the Bible and to impose human criteria of judgment upon him, but such argument presupposes disputable interpretations of the Bible and also fails to recognize the very strong affirmations of God’s otherness that can be found in such writers as DeWolf. (DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, pp. 96-103.) It is true that Personalists have tended to a higher estimate of the moral capacity of man than some other theologians, but they have certainly not minimized the reality of sin and evil, and the question of who is more faithful to the Bible here is an open one. (For DeWolf’s impressive discussion, see ibid., pp. 130-143, 179-200.) Furthermore, the basic issue is not whether one agrees in detail with Personalist theology but whether the fundamental approach necessarily leads to such conclusions as may be thought to be un-Biblical. Here, at least, the question remains undecided, and the evidence would seem to favor the Personalists.
The Personalists may also be attacked because within the context of their method they cannot affirm without severe qualifications the deity of Jesus. I believe that this inability is ingredient in the approach. The affirmation of Jesus’ deity cannot be based upon the criterion of comprehensive coherence. It also depends upon a metaphysical context alien to Personalism. But that the affirmation of the ontological deity of Jesus is an essential or desirable part of Christian theology remains, again, an open question. A plausible case can be made for its absence from most of the New Testament.
The point of the above comments is twofold. On the one hand, the philosophic commitments of Personalism in its natural theology do restrict the range of assertions that can be made in its Christian theology. On the other hand, it is by no means self-evident that Personalism is prevented from affirming with considerable adequacy the faith of the New Testament. Criticism on this point must be based upon study of the New Testament that goes beyond any present clear consensus.
We may summarize our conclusions as follows. The Personalists have achieved a remarkable synthesis of philosophy and theology that satisfies their own criterion of comprehensive empirical coherence. In this way they have shown the reasonableness of the Christian faith and the absence of any necessity of absurdity and paradox in its formulation. We have not tried to judge whether their understanding of Christian faith is adequately Biblical or existentially acceptable.
On the other hand, the whole circle of Personalist thought fails to make contact with increasingly prevalent kinds of reason in our day. The criticism of Personalism here is not that this gulf exists or that those on the other side of the gulf are philosophically wiser or more reasonable. The criticism is only that the theological method that is advocated largely ignores this gulf. Unless it is possible to argue for the Personalist conception of the function of reason on grounds that seriously challenge the phenomenalistic and positivistic philosophies of our day, we must abandon the effort to establish belief in a personal God on the basis of a reason that is independent of Christian revelation.