Commentary Magazine


Patterns of Faith in America Today, edited by F. Ernest Johnson

Religion, in Dewey’s phrase, is more obviously an affair of having, being, and doing, than it is an affair of knowing. It is possible to get religion, to be religious, and to live religiously, without necessarily knowing a great deal about religion. Conversely it is possible to know religion without having it.

These introductory remarks are not intended in any way to reflect upon the morals of the very able contributors to this symposium on Patterns of Faith in America Today. But they are intended to highlight the emphasis of this symposium on the elements of belief and of knowledge rather than on the element of conduct in religion. The editor, F. Ernest Johnson, has put to each of the participants certain questions concerning the conception of God, the nature of authority and freedom, the nature and destiny of man, the teachings on sin and salvation, on history, and on progress. And we are told that in getting together for this discussion two Protestants, a Catholic, a Jew, and a humanist, “the only possible frame of reference is one that embodies a scientific outlook on life and a respect for historical scholarship.”

Undoubtedly closest to the being and the doing as taking precedence over the knowing is Professor Simon Greenberg’s statement of the faith of Judaism. It still comes as a surprise to most Christians to learn that Judaism cares little for systematic theology, and that in dealing with questions of value it refuses to be fitted into “the strait-jacket of the syllogism.” The focal concepts are God, Israel, and the Torah, and it is the “passionate love and joy” inspired by the Torah which give us the heart of the matter.

Curiously enough, it is this faith in the primacy of being and doing which, of all the faiths delineated here, is the most unequivocal in its optimism. As for sin—“from time to time man loses his grip, so to speak”; but God is more generous in rewards than he is severe in punishment. Moreover God’s world is pointed in the direction of progress: “The accumulation of the good in the world thus proceeds in geometric ratio, while evil grows only arithmetically. God has so ordered the universe that it favors the right and the good.”

For a pattern of faith that has a more theological character we may turn to the opening essay by Professor Robert McAfee Brown on “Classical Protestantism.” What is being done here is something of considerable significance in the development of modern Protestantism. It is the effort of a Protestant, moving beyond both “liberalism” and “neo-orthodoxy,” to reformulate the classical ingredients in his heritage. The opening sentence tells us that Protestantism is the “religion of free grace,” and we learn later that its ethics is an “ethics of gratitude.” Some liberals may object to Dr. Brown’s effort to reinterpret and to rehabilitate predestination and election, and some of the orthodox might think that there could be at least a passing reference to hell-fire and damnation. But it is probable that the company of Protestants for which Dr. Brown speaks so ably is an increasing rather than a decreasing one.

It might be expected that the Roman Catholic position would be developed for us with a maximum emphasis on rational coherence, but there is a surprise in store for the reader at this point. Dr. Charles Donahue, a layman and a professor of English literature, speaks to us as a Catholic personalist, and presents his faith as having an emphasis on the concrete, the historical, the existential, the dynamic. The object of the Catholic commitment is best described, in a patristic phrase, as the Totus Christus, the Whole Christ: “the Teacher in Galilee . . . the risen and glorified Lord . . . the Christ who, as Head of the Mystical Body, dwells in the Visible Church as it journeys through time.” Nevertheless, Professor Donahue does speak of the “deposit of faith,” is distrustful of all radical disjunctions in philosophy, and insists that, in the last analysis, the truths of reason and the truths of faith cannot really be contradictory.

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The briefest essay, and the least impressive, is the one on “Liberal Protestantism” by the late Professor Edwin E. Aubrey. The Christology here is so innocuous that I cannot believe that any decent human being would refuse assent to it. The heart of the “liberal” doctrine, however, appears to be the insistence that theology is of use only as it may lead us back to “fundamental and dynamic human experience.” When we ask how we are to test, discriminate, and validate the “fundamental” in human experience, we get an appeal, not to an experimental logic, but to the principle of coherence. And we are invited to work out a simple scheme of coherence between the deliverances of the church, of the Bible, and of science and philosophy. It is a nice question whether this job is done the better by the philosophic idealism of Aubrey or by the classical rationalism of the Roman Catholic.

On the other hand why not accept—with consistency if not with coherence—the unabashed pluralism of the “Naturalistic Humanism” of John Herman Randall, Jr.? For this, too, is another kind of “catholicity.” Though with its partiality for the Hindu rather than the Western temper in theology, I begin to wonder if it may not be so insistent in its tolerance as to delete all that is distinctive in the Judeo-Christian heritage. In order to avoid the exclusiveness of saying “Here I stand!” Professor Randall seems to boast that he stands here, there, and everywhere. As a theoretical position this may be admirable, but I am not sure that it is a practical possibility, nor do I see just how it is to be put to the service of an experimental logic which really discriminates values from disvalues.

Yet Randall’s essay is one of the most stimulating in the symposium. Former students of his will be delighted to recognize in this writing the same blend of the witty, the provocative, and the profound which distinguishes his lectures in the classroom. We are disarmed by his opening confession that he hardly belongs in the company of theologians, because “I cannot myself claim to represent anything—except, I hope, the Truth, which I see in my way, while my colleagues, I gather, see it in God’s.” Whether he is implicating both Dewey and Niebuhr in an inversion of Kant’s categorical imperative to read, “Treat man never as an end merely, but always as a means also,” or whether he is discussing the character of religious symbolism, or setting off humanism against humility, or proving that a naturalist appreciates the historic faiths of supernaturalism better than does the supernaturalist himself, Randall is always exciting the intelligence of the reader, always prompting one to a fresh consideration of old issues.

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But while the Jewish Theological Seminary of America has done an admirable job in getting together these five men for a friendly symposium, we must still wonder how the several patterns of faith may hope to live together in the larger social scene. For there is a big gap between the naturalist, who takes an almost wanton delight in the pluralism of our culture, and the Roman Catholic, who acknowledges it as a “tragic fact.” Somewhere in the middle, I suspect, are the Protestants, who are pluralists in fact and in function, but are never quite prepared to admit it. For the naturalistic rationalist, like Randall, this pluralism is part of the creative potential of our society; for the supernaturalistic rationalist, like Donahue, it is a challenge, in spite of our divisions, to try to achieve civic fraternity in the pursuit of a common temporal good.

Professor Donahue also assures us that, whatever may be the interim ethic of the Roman Catholic Church while it is a minority group, it has no intention as a majority of ever molesting the civil and religious rights of a minority. According to him any fears in this direction are “based in nightmares rather than in a sober sense of practical possibilities.” Doubtless one might ask whether the treatment accorded to religious minorities in Colombia may properly be described as a “nightmare”; in any case this nightmare has been not only possible, but practical, and frightfully real. And it is especially disturbing that when the National Council of Churches ventured to protest the situation, the protest itself was received by the Catholic hierarchy as an act of presumption. Nevertheless, Professor Donahue’s suggestion for an “ecumenicism of nature,” or an “ecumenicism of goodwill,” expresses the essential in a strategy of interfaith fraternity; and, beyond that, we must be grateful for the honest, sensitive, and generous spirit which pervades his discourse.

In conclusion, the pluralist must be right in his conviction that any institution whatsoever, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is tempted to arrogance and to tyranny as it approximates the condition of a monopoly of power—and the temptation is all the worse as that institution claims for itself a sanction that is either “scientific” or “divine.” We may indeed believe that God has used the Judeo-Christian religion to provide the foundations for a democratic society, and to discipline it from the spiritual pride of a “people’s democracy” which exalts the state into a god. We may also believe that God has made use of political democracy to make possible the charitable collaboration of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew, and to discipline each cult from the spiritual pride of the “one true church” which exalts the ecclesia into a god.

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