On graduation from college I entered Yale Divinity School, not because I had decided to become a minister, but because of increasing doubts about the religious faith in which I had been reared. I supposed God had a purpose for my life, but I had no idea what that purpose might be. I entered the seminary to find out, but was required at once to accept field work as pastor to a small Baptist Church. I found that having to deliver pastoral prayers and sermons in my state of confusion increased my growing doubt. As a Protestant, I had direct access to God, but while I could call on Him, God never saw fit to reply. Finally my tie to Christianity became so tenuous that it was perhaps best expressed by Augustines prayer: Thou hath made us for thyself and we are restless till we find our rest in Thee.
In that frame of mind I was invited by a good friend to attend his high nuptial Mass, rich in ceremony, music, and liturgy. I am embarrassed to recall how deeply that Mass offended my Protestant sensibilities. In the midst of incense and the recitation of an almost endless Latin liturgy, I heard only mumbo-jumbo incantations that seemed to me barbaric and in violation of the clarity of Protestant Christianity. I had a hard time believing Calvinist doctrine, but, I asked myself, how could anyone buy into all this dumb show and noise?
Subsequent events set me straight. Reared in a Protestant sect whose members were expected to demonstrate that exalted piety and virtue appropriate to the elect, I had not yet discovered the importance of a church that welcomed everyonesinners as well as saints. Despite these differences, as Christian institutions both denominations professed a faith in a loving God whose love was made tangible by His incarnation. Unlike the laughter-loving gods of the Greeks who from Mount Olympus made sport of finite human beings, the Christian God cared so deeply for the greatest of his creations and was so distressed by their behavior and concerned to save them that He decided to become a man in order to share fully the human experience.
But what, I asked, did it mean that Christ was wholly God and wholly man? If God were wholly man, I wondered, would He while fully man still be fully God? If God became wholly man, He would have to accept and suffer all the ills that flesh is heir to, the abuse of other men, and even a totally undeserved death. In the throes of death He would know what we human beings know: beyond physical suffering and death, He would also know the horror of being totally alone, defenseless, abandoned by God himself. Even God, once fully man, would be alienated from God and cry out from the cross, Why hast thou forsaken me?
That conception of God is beautiful and deeply appealing. If one could believe, one could know that this God fully understood each human heart, sinners no less than saints, and because He had shared their experiences He would have compassion for them like the father of the prodigal son.
Another striking feature of Christianity was the parity of perfection and forgiveness. Each Christian is called upon to be perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect. But the call to perfection is merely a call to striving and in every case a call to failure. The guilt that follows would be utterly corrosive and prompt one to villainy (as Richard III, knowing his deformed and wicked nature, said, I am determined to prove a villain). But this temptation is overcome by the availability of full forgiveness through repentance and confession and thereby the restoration of a spiritual equilibrium.
This parity of perfection and forgiveness makes it possible for Christianity to require that each of us strive to do our very best without being destroyed by guilt in our failure to achieve that goal.
As the years passed, I observed that these theological doctrines and the rich tradition of humanistic secularism were losing their influence with the spread of anti-humanistic, deracinated secularism in concert with the decline of attendance in mainline churches. The public square was increasingly emptied of religious symbols and practices. Religious instruction, prayer, and even Christmas carols were banned from the public schools, and manger scenes were prohibited on public grounds. At the same time, a variety of sects was flourishing: the Moonies who captured young people, brainwashed them, and separated them from their families; the Krishnas panhandling in every airport; and the Jonestown sect that terminated itself in mass suicide.
I began to be aware of the importance of a church that, while open to all, would set minimum standards of religious orthodoxy to which anyone could turn. I began to appreciate the particular strengths of Catholicism. The demands of the Catholic Church were not so stringent as those of Protestant sects. The Catholic Church offered a spiritual home to all and instructed each communicant on the minimal elements of Christian orthodoxy. I came to see that the Catholic Church served a purpose in religion and theology like that of the meter bar in Paris that set that standard of measure throughout the world. I recognized the Church in its doctrines, its practices, and in its parochial schools as a great teaching institution alongside other schools and colleges, businesses, the law and the courts.
One of the most important teachings of the Churchan insight applicable to all institutionswas pronounced at the Council of Trent when it held that the validity of the Mass does not depend upon the moral quality of the priest. The individual priest may fail in his obligations, but the Mass he performs is still valid. This insight is relevant to many aspects of personal and intellectual life.
Just as the Church is not destroyed by the failures of individual clergy, neither are the schools and universities discredited by the failures of faculty, nor businesses by the venality and cupidity of some CEOs and boards of directors. The legal profession is not discredited by the presence of shysters nor the courts by errant decisions from the bench or the improper conduct of judges in private life. All these institutions retain their appropriate authority and relevance despite the inevitable failures of individuals who serve in them.
This doctrine of the Council of Trent applied to all institutions offers a powerful reassurance that our institutions can survive the failures that have inevitably tarnished them.
We are all too painfully aware of the ordeal through which the Catholic Church has gone in consequence of the sexual predation of some priests. And none of us if honest can fail to observe the way the legal profession has abandoned traditional professional standards in the pursuit of business opportunities. Ambulance chasers advertise their wares and encourage those possessed of any injuries, illnesses, or lossesimaginary or genuineto join in the hunt for deep pockets.
We are equally aware of the failures of business leaders and boards of directors who in pursuit of personal riches have violated their fiduciary obligation to protect the long-term interests of stockholders, employees, and the communities affected by their presence.
I would be remiss if I failed to enlarge on the failures of our universities. No institution has contributed so extensively to the deracination and diminishment of our humanity as university faculties. A remarkable prophet of this devolution was Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1882 announced the death of God in Die Fröliche Wissenschaft. Nietzsche was completely misunderstood by the graffiti author who inscribed on a wall Nietzsche is Dead, (signed) God, for Nietzsche was not making a theological statement, or a declaration of atheism. Rather he was announcing the world-shaking fact that God no longer played any role or had any influence in the lives of educated Europeans. Copernicus taught them that our world is not the center of the universe, and Darwin that mankind is not a special creation descended from Adam but merely the end result of millions of years of evolution. They were the inheritors of scientific rationalism.
Enthusiasm for Darwin was not dampened by the humorist who reported the father-son conversation of a pair of mon- keys. Handing his son Darwins Origin of Species, the father monkey said, Read this, son, it will make a man of you.
The emerging dominance of an anti-humanist secularism, absent God, gained strength with every passing decade and now, with the exception of those places where Muslim, Christian, and other forms of fundamentalism hold sway, dominates the intellectual climate of the educated in the United States and most parts of the world.
Nietzsche also prophesied the consequences of Gods absence, summarized in the epigram of Dostoevskys Ivan Karamazov: If God is dead, anything goes. Nietzsche foretold a bloody twentieth century of unprecedented, catastrophic wars, to be followed by a twenty-first century in which human beings, retaining an atavistic sense of guilt but absent a god offering forgiveness and absolution of sins, begin to loathe one another and themselves. Faith in God would be replaced by allegiance to barbaric brotherhoods at war with non-brothers. Although Socrates, Kant, and many others denied the necessary dependence of morality on a divine foundation, Nietzsche foretold the total eclipse of all values in the absence of divinely sanctioned moral codes and denied the possibility of belief in moral obligations without the authority of a God who supports them with a divine imperative.
Although the gloom of pessimism as the millennium approached was apparent among many Victorian writers, including Alfred Tennyson, none was as specific as Nietzsche. His prophetic powers have been accurately assessed by Tom Wolfe. In Hooking Up, Wolfe writes, [I]n the peaceful decade of the 1880s, it must have seemed far-fetched to predict the world wars of the twentieth century and the barbaric brotherhoods of Nazism and communism . Behold the prophet! Who can now question the accuracy of Nietzsches and Karamazovs dire predictions?
The scientific assault on the place and dignity of humankind has continued and accelerated. While Copernicus and Darwin announced their findings with reluctance and trepidation, their followers announced further denigrations of the human species with the enthusiasm of tub-thumping evangelists. Freud in claiming to have discovered the unconscious proclaimed that the human individual was no longer master in his own house; his thoughts and behavior were determined instead by irrational and largely unconscious motivations. Edward O. Wilson in his Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene further extended Darwinism by reducing humans to the levels of animals whose behavior, like that of ants, is ever more reduced to the level of genetic determination. B. F. Skinner easily matched their extreme reductionism with his denial of the relevance of conscious thought in human action. (Sidney Morganbesser spotted his error: Skinner thinks, he said, We shouldnt anthropomorphize people.) What are we to make of our own experience if the mindthoughts, ideas, and consciousness for which there is no scientific understandingis held to play no role in the behavior of individuals? According to these reductionists, all mental phenomena are at most epiphenomena, associated in totally inscrutable ways with brain functions responding to genetic mandates. In the final analysis, what an individual human being thinks or does cannot be an expression of his will or his consciousness but, to use the current metaphor, of the way he is wired. Criminal behavior, for example, is simply an expression of the genes. The self, understood scientifically, disappears as a causal responsible being. Praise and blame, guilt, pride and shame are all equally misplaced and illusory ideas. Scientism, this reductionistic unscientific extension of science, has furthered the climate of anti-humanist secularism and practical atheism in universities and intellectual circles.
Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, and legions of cosmologists and physicists have proclaimed that science, not religion, explains the origin of the universe. We all know their view: our universe originated in the Big Bang. But when they are asked what banged, they have no answer, unless it is the matter left over from a prior universe, now collapsed into a black hole. But when pushed to explain where the earlier universe came from, these cosmologists are faced with an infinite regress which leaves unanswered the philosophical and theological question: Why is there something and not nothing?
Theologians have offered the view that God created the universe ex nihilo, from nothing. This is no explanation, but, except for Biblical literalists, it leaves the issue as the mystery it is. Is it not better to admit that no one knows the answer than to propose a scientific answer so patently inadequate?
And what shall thoughtful individuals say about Darwinism in its fulsome development and extension? It is impossible to confront facts objectively and deny that species have evolved. The evidence showing developments in physical structure that relate the human species to hominids is compelling, and the similarities in the DNA of humans and chimpanzees provide undeniable scientific evidence of their kinship. Thus far, evolution is not merely one theory opposed to another but a scientific truth amply confirmed by facts. And there is convincing plausibility to the idea that physical or intellectual advantages have survival value. We can accept without credulity that those species have survived which possessed qualities lending them a clear advantage over the species that have become extinct. An animal that can see, for example, is clearly advantaged over those that are blind. Survival of the fittest based on specific advantages provides factual support for the process of evolution.
The critical question posed for evolutionists is not about the survival of the fittest but about their arrival. Biologists arguing for evolution have been challenged by critics for more than a hundred years for their failure to offer any scientific explanation for the arrival of the fittest. Supporters of evolution have no explanation beyond their dogmatic assertion that all advances are explained by random mutations and environmental influences over millions of years.
This view was challenged a century ago by Henri Bergson when he asked for an explanation of the extraordinary eye of the giant squid. Once the eye is fully developed, one need not question its survival value. But its development required hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. Why was every random mutation so neatly and marvelously contributory to the development of this complex structure? No scientific explanation has been offered; the view is only a working but unproven hypothesis. The empirical scientist becomes a fanatical dogmatist by insisting that random mutation sans any formative principle explains it all. (One need not appeal to an intelligent designer in order to wonder if there is an organizing force in the universe offsetting entropy.) A magician who shows you his empty top hat at time t1 and then at time t2 produces a rabbit from the hat has never had the gall to offer the mere presence of the rabbit as an explanation of how it got there. He claims it is magic. The evolutionists can do no better.
More recently, even some scientists and mathematicians have begun to question the adequacy of the emergent aspect of evolution largely for its failure to explain what Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of Darwins Black Box, calls the irreducible complexity of organisms. Random mutation cannot explain scientifically their complexity and the addition of so many complex elements before any survival value is established; hence, the black box or the rabbit in the hat. In Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures that Live in It, C. P. Idyll considers once again Bergsons preoccupation with the eye of the squid. Idyll notes, What the scientist finds hardest to understand in considering the squid and the human eye is that two entirely independent lines of evolution should have converged at the same point. Why should evolution have produced eyes in two vastly different species through totally independent lines of evolution such that each has the eyeball with its lens, its cornea, its iris, its retina, its vitreous humor, and its optic nerve? How did random mutation produce such extraordinarily similar structures in the absence of any teleological or formative principles? And how many hundreds of thousands of years passed before each additional element significantly contributed the final capacity of sight that would ensure survival?
Random mutation might be the answer, but there is no evidence to prove it. Scientists should acknowledge the difference between what is proven and what is merely a hypothesis. One is not attacking or denigrating science to point out its hubristic extensions unsupported by any evidence or methodology that could be described as scientific.
Creationists cannot deny the fact of evolutionthe development over extended periods of time of new forms of life and the survival of those forms that are the fittest. These aspects of the theory of evolution are adequately confirmed by facts and must be accepted as facts by rational observers. Those who insist that human beings were originally created in their present form are as irrational as those who believe the world is flat.
But those who believe that an intelligence or some formative principle has guided the development of new forms of life have a right so to believe. At the same time scientists have the right to believe that random mutation alone accounts for the arrival of new forms of life. Each has the right to that credo or faith that best supports their view of the nature of things. At the same time, however, each should recognize that faith, not facts, supports their positions, for there is no scientific evidence or proof for either intelligent design or random mutation as a factual explanation of the arrival of the fittest. On my view, scientists and laymen should prefer to leave the issue as the mystery it is rather than commit to an answer for which scientific evidence is lacking.
If scientists do not claim to know anything as factual unless it is supported by empirical evidence, they will, as Kant observed in his Critique of Pure Reason, leave room for faith.
I recall as a child the sermons I heard in which ministers railed against evolution. I asked then, as I ask today, what are the theologians complaining about? Presumably God can use evolution as a method of Creation if He so desires. I couldnt understand the conflict between science and religion then, and I cant understand it now, except when literal fundamentalists interpret the Bible as a scientific book and treat the account of creation in Genesis as a factual scientific account. Or except when scientists dogmatically assert as factual explanations for the arrival of the fittest which lack objective scientific evidence and are nothing more than an assertion of their working hypotheses.
The public places mistaken emphasis on the bane of political correctness in universities. Most examples of political correctness, however stupid and irritating, are relatively harmless. But the constant drumbeat and march of scientismthat assertion by scientists of dogmas unsupported by objective scientific procedureshas been an unrelenting assault on the dignity of the human spirit. In the intellectual climate of the present we are left with diminished human beings the facts of whose experience are denied by reductionistic scientism.
Those who challenge the reductionistic doctrines of scientism have been subjected to verbal abuse and contempt by scientists that equal in intensity the denunciation from pulpits of those who question the literal interpretation of Scripture. Those scientists approach in hubris and ignorance pastors who rely on the literal interpretation of the Bible without knowing that the canon was not handed down in English at Sinai, but was determined by the fathers of the Catholic Church.
With regard to the literalists and the reductionists, I would say, a plague on both houses.
The literalists have no standing in universities. But what standing, we must ask, have the reductionists who claim the authority of science in areas of inquiry beyond scientific evidence or proof? I do not question their right to develop their ideas and their research as they deem best. The freedom of inquiry should not be challenged. But neither should any scientist or researcher claim an immunity from criticism. The right to err is fundamental for, as Goethe remarked, Man must err so long as he strives. We have, moreover, the assurance of the Council of Trent that all our institutions, including the university, retain their validity despite the failures and mistakes of our members.
We have, therefore, every right to demand of the reductionists: What is the relevance of your pronouncements that trivialize or outright deny the full range of human potentiality in the face of the demonstrable wonders of mankind? Do your claims account for or diminish the beauty of the Parthenon, the music of Bach or Mozart, the frescoes and sculptures of Michelangelo, the plays of Shakespeare, or the genius of Lincolns prose?
The miracle of human existence is reflected in an incident recalled by the late choral conductor Robert Shaw. At the conclusion of a concert in southern France, he met an elderly parish priest who said, When the angels want to give particular pleasure to God, they sing only Bach. But, he continued, when they wish to give greatest pleasure to themselves, they perform only Mozart. As Shaw observed, there are a billion billion ways to organize the words in the English languagebut there was a Shakespeare. And there are a trillion trillion ways to organize simultaneous and sequential pitchesbut there was a Mozart. Individual persons make the difference and expose the shallowness of the exponents of the view that we humans are merely responses to the dictates of mindless genes.
Why should anyone as an act of faithone dominant among the proponents of scientismaccept a view according to which our experience as conscious, purposeful, and morally responsible individuals is dismissed as illusory? Edward O. Wilsons observation that an organism is only DNAs way of making more DNA is refuted by organisms like Mozart, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo, whose DNA made few offspring but many enduring works of art.
The Bible comes far closer to the truth in noting that man is created only a little lower than the angels, and Sophocles was right to sing of the wonder of man.
No one should deny the rich fabric of human experience on the unproven claims of a faith that empties our lives of all meaning and purpose. A faith that allows for the full expression of our nature provides a better home for human beings than the reductionistic extremes of scientism. There is undeniable greatness in the human spirit and nothing can be said, much less proved, to deny so obvious and obdurate a fact.