Commentary Magazine

The Crisis of Faith

To the Editor:

It appears as though the attempt of Emil L. Fackenheim to de-eclipse God has eclipsed man [“The Eclipse of God,” June].

In positing the tautology that only he who believes is a believer, we have a reductio ad absurdum. Beyond the veil of philosophic obscurantism lies the verity that one who is open to faith, by dint of having been thus inculcated, will certainly agree that he stands in a direct relationship with his God.

The notion that catastrophes test but don’t destroy faith is equally strange. Mr. Fackenheim seems to ignore contemporary man-centered ideologies which demand self-justification by God as they do of man, for God, too, must be a “success.” . . . Professor Fackenheim’s article illustrates the deficiency of philosophical theology. Perhaps philosophers and theologians should enter the 20th century.

(Rabbi) M. J. Summer
Buffalo, New York



To the Editor:

. . . In the ranks of both the godly enduring His eclipse, and those men who see only the darkness at large, one finds beings who want to do good in this world. Both sorts plainly agree about the goodness of many actions. Both find men who do not seem to care, and the potentiality for organized monstrousness, in their own ranks. Thus, for many, the discovery of goodness has become more important than the argument about God. . . . The power behind the subjectivism so beautifully described in Mr. Fackenheim’s article was the rediscovery that belief in God was not necessary to enable one to do good. . . .

The painful 20th-century quest for an existential politics which meets human needs is at root a dialogue about goodness. It is neither necessarily godly nor necessarily ungodly. . . . Honest subjectivists escape the agony of life no more than honest men of faith. . . .

Michael W. Vozick
Berkeley, California



To the Editor:

Emil L. Fackenheim mistakenly attributes the eclipse of God and the contemporary crisis of religious faith to pervasive subjectivist reductionism. . . .

The elaboration of science has explained many causes and effects and has reduced the mysteries of life and the universe. Consequently, it has reduced the need to explain phenomena by deriving them from the workings of an inscrutable God, who is creator and prime mover. . . .

The relativism of morals, mores, and religious belief that derives from the development of anthropology, social psychology, and comparative religion; philosophies that challenge any proof of God’s existence and logical positivism that classifies moral and religious statements as being emotive only and as saying nothing objective about reality—these are not friendly to certainty nor to belief itself. . . .

These many elements made doubt an increasing phenomenon, and faith is most secure when it is undisturbed by doubt.

The coup de grâce was supplied by the tragedies of the 20th century: Nazism, Stalinism, two world wars, the Bomb. The tragedies were the more important because they followed upon increasing control by man of his environment, upon increasing freedom and belief in man’s perfectibility, and upon the promise of a better collective and individual life.

William Lucy
Utica, New York



To the Editor:

. . . It is in connection with his critique of subjectivism that the difficulties of Mr. Fackenheim’s encounter theology are most in evidence. . . . Mr. Fackenheim refers to a “primordial openness,” and an “immediate relationship” to God. But it is not at all clear how this appeal to religious experience can refute subjectivism. Either that experience is self-authenticating, or it is not. If it is (as Mr. Fackenheim seems to suggest), this can only be because “having a religious experience” means “having a direct experience of God.” But if, as C. B. Martin, a contemporary “subjectivist” points out, only my experience is relevant to the truth of the affirmation, “I have a direct experience of God,” I am talking only about that experience; whether anything is apprehended in that experience cannot be read off from the experience alone, and my psychological claim gains its immunity from error only at the cost of saying nothing whatever about a being outside of myself. If, however, my experience may be delusive (as Mr. Fackenheim also seems to admit), this can only be because I have separated the psychological and the existential claim: God was not the cause of my experience, his presence not the object of that experience. In this case, my affirmation is presumably exposed to the vicissitudes that face all factual propositions . . . (evidence, confirmation, etc.). In short, the dilemma confronting an encounter theology is as follows: If my religious claim is construed as incorrigible, it is necessarily subjective. And equivalently, if its subjectivity is denied because it implies an existential reference, then it is corrigible, i.e., establishes an inference. Mr. Fackenheim, it would seem, wishes to affirm both antecedents while denying the consequents. Indeed it appears in the end that the final judge of the truth of a credal affirmation is the person making it. But how is this view compatible with the existential claim, one which Mr. Fackenheim, moreover, believes may be confirmed? Is it on the other hand possible that the truth may remain forever concealed? And isn’t this the most dangerous kind of subjectivism? . . .

Robert Rosthal
University of North Carolina
Greensboro, North Carolina



Mr. Fackenheim writes:

I fully agree with Mr. Vozick’s view that the “quest for an existential politics,” if realistically engaged in with a view to idealistic ends, will bring both the “godly” and the “ungodly” face to face with “the agony of life.” I would insist, though, that in this quest, the honest believer has a source of strength unavailable to the honest agnostic.

Mr. Lucy has not, I fear, read my article carefully. It attacks such philosophies as logical positivism, on the ground that they dogmatically presuppose what they pretend to prove, namely, subjectivist reductionism. Mr. Lucy has not met this criticism but simply restated the dogmas, as if no criticism had been made. His view that religion seeks to explain the unknown has been popular among positivists since Comte, for it discredits religion. But it would be accepted by few genuine scholars of religion whose purpose is to understand, not to discredit. Thus the Jewish creation story is no “theory of cosmic origins,” nor does the Book of Job offer an “explanation of evil.” Both leave their respective “problem” as unexplained as they find it. The purpose of both stories is to struggle for a relation with God, not to give pre-scientific explanations of the universe.

It is hard for me to believe that Rabbi Summer’s comments are meant seriously. What could raise man to greater dignity than a relation with God? How could the Jewish faith—if capable of being destroyed by catastrophes, not merely tested—have survived for but a single century? And as for the demand issued by “man-centered ideologies” that God be a “success” (ideologies which, incidentally, I did not ignore), what on earth can be meant by such a demand except, possibly, a return to primitive magic?

As to Mr. Rosthal’s rather substantial letter:

  1. Biblical faith clearly takes empirical evidence as confirming God but not counting against Him. The prayed-for rain evidences God’s presence; lack of rain only shows that the prayer is denied. God speaks through the true prophet; the false prophet shows only that He has not spoken, not that He cannot speak. I have admitted and, indeed insisted that such “confirmation” differs from, say, scientific confirmation. Mr. Rosthal’s difficulties arise because this difference is ignored.
  2. Mr. Rosthal attributes to me the attempt to “refute subjectivism” by “an appeal to religious experience.” My clearly stated intentions were confined to refuting the claims of subjectivism to be a refutation of faith, accompanied by the open admission and insistence that faith itself is undemonstrable. Why has so keen a critic failed to notice this? I suggest because of a tendency common among linguistic philosophers (their Wittgenstein-inspired respect for “ordinary language” notwithstanding) to understand the claims of faith in extraneous categories,—categories which I would argue to be inapplicable.
  3. Modern faith is faced with a dilemma, but not with Mr. Rosthal’s. His is between unfalsifiable but psychologically subjective data, and such as are objective at the price of being falsifiable. The believer’s dilemma is that his faith is “subjective” as regards certainty (for he has no Archimedian point outside faith itself) and yet “objective” as regards the truth intended (his faith is true at all only if he stands before God, not if he is in solitary disport with god-images). That such a faith entails risk has always been recognized. Because of modern subjectivist reductionism, the recognition today is radical. And modern believers such as Kierkegaard know that they can cope with the risk and the dilemma only by their willingness to stake their lives on an “objectively uncertain” truth,

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.