While the Communist sphere is officially committed to evolutionary atheism, the non-Communist world is notably uncommitted to anything
The late twentieth-century warfare of ideas aligns Christian theism and modern atheistic naturalism as the decisive alternatives; intermediary options maintain unstable and impermanent lines of battle. The Communist sphere is officially committed to evolutionary atheism. Meanwhile, the non-Communist world is notably uncommitted to anything; its ruling conviction is neither revelational theism nor dialectical materialism but rather an expanding skepticism. Devotion to the values of empirical science, brotherhood, and justice is affirmed in the loose context of a great variety of speculative views, both naturalistic and supernaturalistic.
The Soviet world regards Christian supernaturalism as an opiate of the masses, that is, as restrictive of revolutionary social change, perhaps largely in view of the role of Russian Orthodoxy in the past, although tactically it tolerates Christianity for its potentiality as a secular social solvent. The Western world, meanwhile, relates itself to Christianity sentimentally rather than merely tactically. While its universities neglect traditional Christian theism, most intellectuals are unable wholly to free themselves from its influence, and their world-life view tends to modify rather than entirely displace the inherited religious tradition. This Western welcome for isolated aspects of the biblical theism and retention of remnants of the traditional faith, even within the framework of naturalism, fails to impress Soviet philosophers; they consider, for example, the religious humanists’ appeal to agape as a moral absolute, a needless encumbrance on the achievement of revolutionary objectives.
Since the emergence of nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism, no feature of modern theology has been so obvious on the Continent and throughout the English-speaking world as its instability; the contemporary alternatives to historic Christian theology are predictably short-lived. The dialectical and the existential revisions proposed by modern European theologians have failed to attract permanent attention.
Anglo-Saxon theologians are already tracking new positions in a number of speculative orbits, and vocal spokesmen for the newer alternatives deliberately resist and reject recent dialectical-existential approaches. Neo-liberals are reviving the tradition of speculative metaphysics on a rationalistic base, linguistic theologians relocate the function of religious language to vindicate a role for affirmation about the supernatural, and religious naturalists abandon transcendent reality to concentrate on secular concerns, especially the social value of agape exemplified by Jesus. This reorientation of contemporary religious perspectives presages, in America and England at least, an imminent struggle between evangelical theologians supporting historic Christian theism and a new field of increasingly aggressive competitors.
While linguistic theologians surrender a literal affirmation of the transcendent aspects of religion in order to emphasize instead the therapeutic value of Christianity, neo-liberals promoting the revival of metaphysics stress a universal or general supernatural revelation with Jesus of Nazareth at the zenith. Orthodox Protestants meanwhile stress not only general revelation but also special revelation as a divine confrontation of fallen and sinful man, and over against recent anti-intellectualism they insist upon the rationality of supernatural revelation.
In this intensifying debate, the crucial issue is man’s conceptual knowledge of transcendent Being in an age that relies increasingly upon empirical science to validate its judgments. Despite historic Christianity’s bold insistence on man’s possession of authentic knowledge of the supernatural world, the claim to universally valid religious truths (even on the basis of special revelation) was openly forfeited by Protestant liberalism; post-Kantian thinkers like Ritschl and Herrmann and post-Hegelian thinkers like Schleiermacher were influential in defining the Christian faith in terms of trust independently of revealed truths. This surrender of the role of conceptual reasoning in man’s relationship to transcendent Being was carried forward in the past two generations by dialectical theology (Kierkegaard, Barth, and Brunner) and by existential theology (Bultmann and the post-Bultmannians). Dialectical and existential theologians protested the scientific reduction of man to an impersonal object and the explanation of concrete human existence in abstract scientific terms, outside any climate of enduring meaning and value. To vindicate man’s transcendence of the natural order, dialectical theologians emphasized the special supernatural confrontation of man as an individual person, while existential theologians stressed that the scientific concentration on sense experience ignores man’s volitional, emotional, and subconscious experience, especially the area of personal decision. Despite their fabrication of anti-intellectual theories of divine confrontation aimed to salvage non-cognitive faith from doubt and unbelief, the desperate attempt of dialectical and existential theologians to vindicate the supernatural has crumbled under the weight of conflicting claims, and has failed to earn wide public attention because of its disavowal of universally valid religious truth.
Neither the dialectical insistence on non-propositional revelation nor the existentialist emphasis on individual confrontation could long postpone a full surrender of the supernatural in the absence of objective knowledge of God valid for all men in all times and places irrespective of their personal feelings and response.
The modernist-dialectical-existential failure to insist upon man’s conceptual knowledge of any transcendent reality has, in fact, encouraged some religious thinkers to abandon entirely the case for the supernatural and to insist that scientific empiricism alone supplies valid knowledge. This is the standpoint of the “death of God” school, which brushes aside all interest in transcendent reality; it declares Christian theism outmoded and promotes a secular version of the inherited religion. Thus the modernist loss of biblical theism, and its substitution of radical trust in God for objective knowledge of God, has moved half-circle to the affirmation of religious naturalism, a form of atheism that escapes the harsh features of a thoroughly materialistic view of life only through its lingering attachment to the moral ideals of Jesus. Given the incompetence of reason to know transcendent Being, liberal theology has been increasingly vulnerable to analytical philosophy, which now dominates the philosophy departments in many if not most of the large universities in the United States, England, and Sweden. Its net effect is to make empirical verifiability the criterion of meaning.
The currents of atheism and agnosticism in modern thought flow from an underlying skepticism that has swept over much of Western thought during the past two centuries. The exaltation of the scientific method of gaining knowledge has been accompanied by a parallel distrust of man’s capacity to know God. If this skepticism is not to issue, in turn, in a pervasive nihilism and the loss of all meaning, modern man will need once again to recognize the possibility of knowing transcendent Reality. If beyond his remarkable but revisable insights into how things work (or seem to) he still desires to know anything truly, he will need once more to rise simultaneously to the knowledge of both nature and nature’s God.
Neither Moses, nor Isaiah, nor Paul—and surely not Jesus of Nazareth—would have conceded to the philosophers of our century, or of any other, that man has no rational knowledge or conceptual experience of the Living God. The first Christian apostles went out to face the pagan world of their day in the sure confidence of the knowledge of God; in fact, while the Greek philosophers contrasted faith and knowledge, the Apostle John boldly and repeatedly declared: “We know that we know.”?
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