The Impact of Theology on the
Intellectual Life of the Nation: II
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The second of two papers read at the Annual
Meeting of DES, held in Chicago in April 1960; the first, by Dr. Martin Marty,
appeared in our Bulletin for May 1960.
In approaching a subject as complex as The
Impact of Theology on the Intellectual Life of the Nation, the danger is
to indulge in platitudes. No one, I suppose, questions either the importance
of religious values in shaping the national culture, or the value of theology,
which is only religion made articulate, as a medium of influence on the intellectual
life of America.
My purpose will be to examine in some detail
the influence of Catholic theological principles in our country, with some
reference to the past but mostly with emphasis on the future. I shall try
to answer, candidly and I hope with some profit, the question, What does Catholic
theology offer to the upbuilding of the American mind?
Catholicism is not unique in having a theology
of its own. In the higher cultures of human history, the existence of religion
has always involved the existence of theology as a rational system of religious
knowledge. All the higher religions assert the existence of divine truth and
base their teaching on its special communication to man. The alternative is
either chaos or a nebulous haze. If we have no true knowledge of religious
experience, religion loses its validity and even its social cohesion, and
becomes instead an irrational impulse like any other delusional form of psychosis.
It is not difficult to isolate the principles
which are characteristic of Catholic theology. One reason is that through
centuries of conflict with heresy, the Church has had to reflect on the faith
and carefully define its limits in terms that leave nothing to be desired
for precision. That men like Harnack should be scandalized at the nuance
in the spelling of a word at the Council of Nicea (homo-ousios or homoi-ousios)
only illustrates how easy it is to specify the Catholic position in cardinal
points of doctrine. And Reinhold Niebuhrs strictures about the wooden orthodoxy
of Chalcedon on the divinity of Christ are an implicit tribute to the ancient
Churchs uncompromising clarity on the person of its Founder.
First among these principles is the affirmation
that mans destiny lies beyond the world of sensible reality, in the beatific
vision of God, seeing Him face to face and enjoying Him with a happiness that
transcends the native capacity of creation.
This destiny is not inevitable. Man has to
work out his salvation by the right use of his faculties, and, indeed, of
everything that enters his life. Conditioned on his use of creatures, which
may be naturally secular and temporal, he will either reach heaven or be lost
The right use of creatures implies freedom
in the will to choose between good and evil, and therefore responsibility
for its actions in the moral order. To make choice possible, God supplies
the necessary knowledge in two ways: from reasoning on the world of nature
and by a supernatural revelation for which the Church is the infallible guide.
In the face of his responsibilities, man finds
himself in constant need of divine assistance in the form of grace - light
for the mind and strength for the will. And the longer he lives the more certain
he is that unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build
For a Catholic the whole structure of human
existence rests on these truths with complete certitude. He has no doubt about
the purpose of life or the effort he must make on earth among creatures to
reach heaven and the Creator or the sovereign freedom he has to decide his
lot for eternity or of what he must do to be saved.
If ever the American people needed these absolutes
it is today, when the intellectual life of the nation - with stress on education
- is being suffocated by an atmosphere of naturalism and determinism, to a
point where serious writers with no bias in favor of the Catholic Church are
deeply concerned about the future.
Three forms of naturalism have invaded American
education in the past fifty years, asserting the priority of sense phenomena
over spiritual reality, of space and time over personal immortality, and of
mans ability to reach perfection without grace or special assistance from
Prominent philosophers of education have substituted
a unification of ideal values for the idea of God, who does not exist except
as a projection of subjective impulses which may guide human conduct. While
the concept of God is not real, since it is created by the fantasy, it is
not illusory because it serves the purpose of idealizing our hopes and desires.
A novel distinction has found its way into
educational circles. Projected ideals are religious, but there is no
warrant for religion, since there is no evidence of an extramental
God for religion to worship. Any activity, we are told, pursued in behalf
of an ideal end against obstacles because of conviction of its enduring value
is religious in quality.
The consequences of this naturalism are devastating.
If the difference between substantive religion and religious values is only
nominal, it is arrogant for religion to claim any monopoly of ideals or of
the supernatural means by which they can be furthered. Out of this claim rises
an opposition between two philosophies of life that is not to be bridged,
and just because the release of religious values (minus dependence on the
deity) is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of
religion must be dissolved.
Some fixed doctrinal apparatus, it is admitted,
is necessary for religion. But faith in the possibilities of rigorous inquiry
does not limit access to truth to any single channel or scheme. It does not
depend for assurance upon subjection to any dogma or item of doctrine. It
trusts that the natural interaction between man and his environment will breed
more intelligence and generate more knowledge than ever the creeds could produce,
provided scientific methods are pushed further into the mysteries of the world.
Here we have a new definition of faith. There
is such a thing, says John Dewey, as faith in intelligence becoming religious
in quality - a fact that perhaps explains the efforts of some religionists
to disparage the possibilities of intelligence as a force. They properly feel
such a faith to be a dangerous rival.
So much for knowledge. The same holds true for action and achievement. Men
have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life,
because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature
to do the work they are responsible for doing. Dependence upon an external
(divine) power is the counterpart of surrender of human endeavor. In this
deification of mans ability to perfect himself we see the crucial error of
naturalism in modern education; an error which may be traced, through Kantian
philosophy, to the Protestant Reformation - as a reaction to the sola gratia
theory of Luther and Calvin, and a logical application of their principle
of religious autonomy.
No doubt others than Catholics are concerned
about the naturalist miasma infecting the intellectual life of America. The
current interest in promoting spiritual and moral values in public education
is a move in the right direction, and Catholic educators are actively co-operating
with Protestant leaders to remedy a critical situation. But the standing symbol
of fidelity to an unqualified supernaturalism is the Catholic school system
the function of which, in the words of Pius XI, is to produce a supernatural
man who thinks, judges, and acts constantly and consistently in accordance
with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching
of Jesus Christ.
As far back as the third century, Christian
apologists had to defend the Churchs insistence on the primacy of the spiritual
and supernatural, against the charge of suppressing mans natural powers or
neglecting progress in the letters, arts, and sciences. But we are not strangers
to life, Tertullian told the pagans. We are fully aware of the gratitude
we owe to God, our Lord and Creator. We reject none of the fruits of His handiwork;
we only abstain from their immoderate or unlawful use.
This passage should be framed as the motto
of every Christian who knows that while he has not here a lasting city, he
yet sees that life on earth is something more than a thoroughfare full of
woe, to be suffered from necessity or escaped in religious dreams. His faith
tells him that he is, literally, in via, on the way to eternal beatitude,
provided he uses the powers God gave him, especially his mind, according to
their native purpose and the opportunities which present themselves. Not stultifying
the mind, therefore, but developing the intellect perfects the image of God
in which man was created.
The implications for evaluating the impact
of theology on the American intellectual life are manifold. Negatively it
means that so far from hindering the progress of secular knowledge, sound
theology promotes it, gives it scope and purpose, and alone among the sciences
protects the mind from wasting its energies in fruitless cogitation or spending
itself to its own destruction. Positively it means that every human discipline,
every field of research and study may and ought to be fostered by men and
women whose ultimate motives and dedication are derived from authentic theological
principles. We shall examine only three: history, the social sciences, and
History has been variously defined as the
branch of knowledge that records and explains past events, or again as the
account of past human actions connected with a philosophical (or better, theological)
explanation of their cause. In either case, three elements are essential to
the concept of history: past occurrence, human activity, and a rational explanation.
What a difference it makes whether a historian
or the student of history approaches these elements from a supernatural viewpoint
and applies the norms of his Christian theology. The past speaks to him a
language he can understand, as embodying something more than what happened,
because he knows that in all history God dwells, lives, is to be seen. Every
deed demonstrates Him, every moment preaches his name. He is not afraid to
prefix the name Christian to historian, as though it were invalid or unscientific
to interpret human events in the light of a higher than deterministic philosophy.
Let us probe a bit deeper. Not many years
ago historians in England and America rejoiced that after centuries of irresponsibility,
history had finally come into her own. The historians task, claimed Henry
Buckle, was to show that the movements of nations are perfectly regular, and
that, like all other movements, they are entirely predictable. Unless a man
can do this, he is no historian. He must be imbued with that spirit of science
which teaches as an article of faith the doctrine of uniform sequence:
Rejecting the metaphysical dogma of free will,
and the theological dogma of predestined events - the doctrine of providential
interference is bound up with that of predestination - we are driven to the
conclusion that the actions of man, being determined solely by their antecedents,
must have a character of uniformity, that is to say, must, under precisely
the same circumstances, always issue in precisely the same results.
If we are tempted to dismiss this statement
of absolute determinism, a sobering reminder is the inroads that Marxian materialism
has made among the intelligentsia in Europe and is currently making in the
The social sciences are pre-eminently in need
of correct and sustained theological orientation. Take the field of sociology,
which is interested in the institutional structure of social systems and the
motivational processes in human beings. Remove the notion of human solidarity
and a future eternal destiny, the idea of freedom and moral responsibility,
the concepts of virtue and sin - and sociology becomes a sterile analysis
of human ills without cure or, as in totalitarian states, an instrument of
control for the benefit of those in power.
Again we are talking about the American scene.
Among the social problems which plague the country and pose a greater threat
than Communism is the widespread evil of divorce and remarriage. If there
is any lesson history teaches, it is the law of the decadence of nations.
Their worst enemy is not an alien power but their own citizens who place selfish
interests before the common good and allow family life to disintegrate through
I shall not dwell on the divergent theologies
of the Catholic Church and other religious bodies as regards divorce, except
to mention what I think demands a heavy accent. Not every doctrinal system
is equally valid, and even in the Christian tradition, when moral and dogmatic
principles are sacrificed to human weakness or calculation, their impact on
the mental and moral life of a nation is devitalized.
There is a corresponding need for theological
response to the race problem. In their approach to this difficult question
sociologists have overlooked two important factors. The origin of race prejudice
must be sought primarily in man himself, in his fallen nature and tendency
to sin; and the remedy must be found along with human effort, in the saving
grace of God.
Theologians have no quarrel with social scientists
who boldly affirm their moral bias, and they defend a departure from strict
scientific neutrality. In fact the very preoccupation of social science in
America for the past quarter century with the racial problem shows it to be
prompted by a deep moral compunction. Social sciences interest in ethnic
tensions as a form of social pathology is a mark of its concern for social
health. Its assumption that the reduction of prejudice is desirable is not
in any sense derived from the facts, but is an ethical dogma.
All well and good. But everything depends on where this ethical dogma
comes from. Throughout the literature on race there appears a wide disparity
regarding the grounds of social harmony. Some outlooks make the religion of
democracy, vaguely defined as the will of the people, the justification of
moral value. With others, adjustment to life becomes the ultimate motive.
At other points, an apotheosized science is taken as the basis of ethical
duty. For the most part, these theories cluster about a misty kind of religion
which has a constellation of purely human and this - worldly ends. Here the
Christian (and Catholic) theologian must step in to offer a healthy corrective
and to furnish the grounds that sociology by itself cannot provide.
At the head of these principles stands the
belief that race prejudice is not one of a catalog of sins, but an expression
of the one sin of pride. Because of his fallen nature, man tends to make for
himself or some projection of himself the center of love and value. Then follows
a distortion of judgment, wherein the neighbor is regarded not in the universal
family of creation as a child of God but, by reference to the partial norm
of color or external features, as a thing, with the result that the community
of persons is broken and divided. Instead of building on the essential unity
of human nature, as taught by revelation, racism looks upon other people not
only as different but as inferior and thereby denies the basic equality founded
by the Creator.
This corrective is not all; however, that
theology has to offer. Why, theologians ask, does sociology consider integration
of the races morally normative? Why should black and white live together in
harmony and how can the integration be achieved? Because of revelation and
the grace of God. Time and again in Scripture and tradition, the word of God
urges the practice of justice and charity and teaches that the love of God
is proved by ones love of the neighbor. By this shall all men know that
you are my disciples. . . . Whatsoever you have done to the least of those
who believe in me. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself. If the
practice of the social virtues is difficult, help is promised for the asking,
on the certain promise that Nothing is impossible with God, that whatsoever
you shall ask in my name will be given to you.
What is most hopeful about these judgments
is that they are being voiced not only by Catholics, but also by others, notably
in the National Council of Churches. It is an implicit recognition that sociology,
no more than any other human science, can subsist or be practically effective
without guidance and assistance from valid theology.
The teaching and reading of literature need
no apology for theological content or evaluation. A single three-volume series
like Fairchilds Religious Trends in English Poetry is proof enough
that literary critics, at least, are aware of the theological implications
of their art. Someone has observed that it is impossible to write good literature
without a religious theme, which on analysis becomes theology. Certainly the
great masters of England and America, along with modern writers, have leaned
heavily on their own or somebody elses theology to give us something more
than colorful dialogue or clever turns of thought. Separate the ideals, whether
high or low, from the plays of Shakespeare and ONeill, the poetry of Milton
and Hopkins, or the essays of Emerson and Belloc, and you destroy their writings.
On the other hand, discover the ultimates which moved them to write as they
did, isolate and appraise those ultimates, and you come to grips with the
deepest issues that ever vexed the thinking minds of men.
My concern here is not to see whether theology
has an influence in the field of letters. This is a matter of record, and,
in fact, there would not be a lasting literature, except for yellow-backs
and dime-store novels, unless theology had contributed to its production.
But if we judge from all evidence on the subject, educators in America have
a yeomans task ahead of them: to widen and deepen the religious impact of
literature and, above all, to cultivate a judicious taste in its use and creation.
For those dedicated to forming the mind-life of our nation, it should be more
than a piece of statistics that library borrowings in fiction and the novel
are ten times as heavy as all other fields of publication put together.
Studies made by the American Council on Education
show that teachers, especially in public secondary education, are so self-limiting
when they handle religious themes in literature that everyone suffers by their
incompetence or caution: the teachers by not giving expression to their beliefs;
the students by receiving a diluted course in the essay, novel, or poetry,
out of which the heart has been removed; and the authors, whose best contributions
are derived from profound religious convictions.
More serious is the need for an evaluative
interpretation of whatever literature is taught in the schools, whether public
or church-affiliated. Students should be trained to recognize the attitudes
they meet in class or assigned reading. Otherwise they may dissociate literature
from theology and identify the latter with heavy tracts De Trinitate,
while leaving literature to the secularists and almost expecting what is well
written to be doctrinally vapid or indifferent.
To be genuine the evaluation must be critical,
in the generic sense of discriminating. Not everything persuasive is true,
nor is everything beautifully written good. Unless students are prepared,
under professional guidance, to separate the wheat from the tares in what
they read, they will scarcely do the same on their own after school and in
later life. Unless their power of analysis is grounded on solid principles
of faith and right reason and sharpened through demanding exercise, the result
will be more grievous than a loss of impact from theology on the American
mind; it will leave the mind an open prey to the latest theory that crosses
its path or, to change the figure, allergic to every philosophical fad.
We have come a long way from the twelfth century
when Europe was predominantly Christian and Catholic. Yet even in those ages
of faith, John of Salisbury gave some advice that may still be instructive.
The safe and cautious thing to do, he said, is to read only Catholic books.
It is somewhat dangerous to expose the unsophisticated to pagan literature.
But a training in both is very useful for those safe in the faith, for accurate
reading on a wide range of subjects makes the scholar; careful selection of
the better makes the saint. Times have changed. We can no longer trust to
the safe and cautious way of reading only Catholic literature. Not only
scholars or prospective saints, but every product of Christian education must
be ready to read pagan literature in almost every page of his literary diet,
and not only not be harmed but positively strengthened by this inevitable
contact with error.
A final word. It would be a mistake to consider the influence of
theology on the intellectual life as either inevitable or purely academic.
It is neither.
In a recent published statement of the Russian
Academy of Pedagogical Science, the writer simply declared that the task
of the Soviet school in the area of mind-formation consists in educating pupils,
the future builders of Communism, as atheists by conscious conviction, and
to this end all the subjects of the curriculum and every phase of school discipline
should be directed. Imagine Marxist educators looking on the impact of atheology
as academic, or doing nothing to promote its success!
Last year, the American Association of Colleges
for Teacher Education finished a five-year study of the integration of religious
values in education, with an eye to teacher training programs in the United
States. The results were challenging, as the present writer can testify from
co-operating with the AACTE project.
It was found that except for church-affiliated
institutions, schools and departments of education in the past generation
had ignored the religious enlightenment of their students and had restricted
themselves quite exclusively to the thought and language patterns of a non-theistic
scientific naturalism. The process is still going on. If anything is certain,
it is the gradual secularization of American life unless those who profess
to believe in God and His Church do more than discuss the theological dimension
in America culture.
John A. Hardon, S.J.
West Baden College
Delta Epsilon Sigma Bulletin
Vol. 5-#3, October 1960, pp. 79-86
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica