Reason and Belief
by Brand Blanshard
Christianity came into existence some 2,000 years ago and ended, at least in the sense of being rationally tenable, in 1974, with the publication of Reason and Belief.
Probably the most pivotal figure of the Enlightenment was the philosopher Immanuel Kant; and among his most influential works was Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793).
Although it was promptly and harshly censored, it nevertheless initiated a tidal wave of fury, of the sort previously reserved for Galileo. In a sense, Kant's book was the 18th century's reply to Luther's 16th century pronouncements emphasizing the centrality of faith, and the peripherality of reason, in human affairs. In a nutshell, Kant stated in no uncertain terms that faith in religion will not do. This was a far bolder position than even that taken earlier by Descartes; but the theory of evolution had yet to take the world by storm, modern astronomy had not yet been born, and modern archaeology and textual analysis had yet to make their appearances.
At first glance, Blanshard's project resembles nothing so much as an update to Kant, undertaken in light of an understanding of modern advancements of this kind. And Blanshard's own words do go some way toward supporting that sort of an understanding of Reason and Belief.
In his preface Blanshard comments rather drily: "The three volumes, Reason and Analysis, Reason and Goodness, and Reason and Belief make a sequence in which I have tried to sketch the office of reason in the theory of knowledge, ethics, and religion respectively. They all continue a line of reflection begun many years before in The Nature of Thought." Much later in the book, on page 554, he remarks "The main thrust of our long study has been to show that when dogma conficts with reason reason has the right of way."
However, although both of these statements are certainly true, so far as they go, neither really gives the reader much sense of what it is that is actually to be found in this volume.
The first part of it is indeed devoted to what may well be the most exhaustive philosophical assessment of any doctrine that has ever yet been produced, or indeed is ever likely to be. The central tenets of Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms, are sytematically placed before us in a way that is far more illuminating as to its nature than anything this reviewer, who was raised Christian, has ever encountered. Indeed, any Christian who wants to know just what it is that mainstream Christianity actually does maintain will find no better guide anywhere. (The startling answer will surely shock nearly all who believe themselves to be Christian.)
Part of the interest in reading Reason and Belief lies precisely here. Christianity has served as the predominant value system of the West for two millennia. Its influence has been so pervasive throughout most of that span of time that one simply cannot grasp the history of the period without also understanding Christianity itself.
But ultimately the greater importance of R&B lies in another direction altogether: as nearly everyone is aware, that value system has been steadily unravelling, and more and more irresistably with every passing decade. The exhaustive evaluation provided in R&B sharply accelerates that process, and leaves the reasonable reader in no doubt that Kant was right: faith, in the sense of an uncritical acceptance of doctrine, can have no legitimate role to play in any genuine religion. And yet, unless faith overrides by sheer brute force the irresistible critique that is here placed before the reader, Christianity simply cannot stand.
Somewhat ironically, and even more surprisingly, Blanshard takes little pleasure in this critical phase of the book. He was the son of a clergyman, and raised Christian himself; and he is also an admirer of the ethics of Christ, seeing in that contribution an indispensable advancement on the previous highwater mark, the ethics of Aristotle. So in the second half of the book he is concerned with offering an answer to this urgently important question: if it is indeed true that Christianity cannot stand, then what is to take its place? For, surely, something must.
Blanshard saw far more clearly than most that our badly fragmented civilization cannot continue much longer without a clear and persuasive answer to this question. Neither agnosticism or atheism of themselves provide a value system, and both therefore leave us stranded - desperately disoriented strangers in a very strange land replete with ever more destructive avarice and opportunism. Yet an answer to a question of this kind isn't, and never will be, forthcoming from science or mathematics - or even from history - either. Where, then, are we to find one?
In the second part of R&B Blanshard goes on answer this question, and the answer, in brief, is this: the best available answers are to be found in philosophy. Now, he is fully aware that philosophers are divided among themselves when it comes to the question of the identifying the proper foundation of values. But here he is ready with two responses.
The first is that, despite a number of genuine differences, there are nevertheless a great many points of agreement to be found among most philosophers of ethics, and these he identifies persuasively. The second, and more important, response is to be found in two other books by Blanshard: the preceding study, Reason and Goodness, and a subsequent study, Four Reasonable Men.
Reason and Goodness begins with a critical examination of the main currents in Western ethics, both the persuasive and the questionable. Following this remarkably thorough assessment, Blanshard then goes on to frame his own account of the foundations of ethics. That answer has in no way dated, and neither has anyone advanced in any significant way beyond it since R&G was published. But a reader of R&G will find much of importance in R&B that goes unstated in the earlier study. Among other things, the assorted deficiencies we encounter in Christianity make much clearer why an answer of the kind Blanshard advocates must take the form that it does. Moreover, in R&B Blanshard also provides the reader with an important historical and cultural context for his earlier conclusions, which results in a powerful and bracing sense of orientation.
Readers of Blanshard's later Four Reasonable Men will also find R&B valuable. Among other things, the motivating concern underlying FRM is there made clear. He says:
If the prospect of a way of life is to make men love and follow it, it must promise action, excitement, and if possible drama. Men will answer en masse a call to live adventurously, even dangerously; they will march under the banner of a Churchill or even a Hitler. Where has one seen a crowd marching, with band and streamers, under the banner of Spinoza? Surely if there is one mass movement against which we may feel safe, it is a stampede toward rationality . . . .
There is no denying . . . that the ideal of reasonableness in thought and action involves reflectiveness and self-criticism, and therefore has never appealed to the many. Has it appealed with real effectiveness to anyone? Examples would seem to be called for to prove it a practical possibility. Happily there have been many great personalities whose comparative freedom from prejudice and pettiness, whose reasonableness of temper and habitual fairness of judgment have gained the admiration of all who knew them. [Pg. 561]
Four Reasonable Men, of course, undertakes to introduce us to four such personalities, and does indeed prove, beyond any doubt, that an ideal of reasonableness is a practical possiblity, if a very demanding one.
And this is critically important, because values don't serve only as a compass in questions of morality: they also provide the proper foundations for both economics and politics, and hence for civilization itself. Both of these disciplines currently proceed in chaotic, elbow-jostling fashion in what is essentially a normative vacuum. Better than anyone, Blanshard has shown why this is such a wholly unsatisfactory situation, and also provides the principles needed to go forward in a far better oriented way. These are among his greatest achievements, and they are, in our estimation, the greatest achievements in all of 20th century philosophy.
Perhaps Blanshard's achievement in these three books is even the most remarkable and greatest achievement in all of human history.
In any event, it is our view that such is in fact the case.
Our preference in book reviews is to provide readers with a few characteristic and valuable passages so they can get some sense for themselves of the flavor of the writer's style and concerns, unimpeded by the filters of the reviewer. In the case of Reason and Belief this is even more difficult that it is with Blanshard's other books, as it is especially dense with quotable passages. However, this review wouldn't be complete without including a few, as follows.
Pgs. 38 - 39
Leo XII wrote: "'All the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration is not only essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God himself, the supreme truth, can utter that which is not true.'
"Now this position is untenable. It requires Catholics to accept as true statements that cannot be true, because they contradict other statements held equally to be true. Let us take first a random sampling of such contradictions, factual, moral and religious. In 2 Samuel 24:9, we read that there were 800,00 men in Israel who drew the sword; in I Chronicles 21:5, the figure is given as 1,100,000. In 2 Samuel 6:23, we read that 'Michal, the daugher of Saul had no child unto the day of her death'. Fifteen chapters later in the same book we find a reference to 'the five sons of Michal, the daughter of Saul' (21:8). . . . All four of the gospels tell the story of the resurrection, but they differ as to the number of angels seen, the places where they were seen, the number of visitors to the tomb, and the times at which the visits were made.
"Here is an array of conflicting statements which are taken impartially from the Old Testament and the New, and which could be multiplied many times. Given any pair of them, one member of the pair must be incorrect. . . . what follows is that the book the writer wrote is not infallible, that the collection of books in which this one appears is not infallible, and that the doctors, councils, and popes who pronounced it infallible were not themselves infallible."
"If there is any part of the Bible to which the Catholic would be inclined to attach pre-eminent authority, it would be the recorded words of Jesus himself. But it is clear that Jesus himself did not accept the view of the Old Testament writings which the church regards as mandatory. Their prescriptions were repeatedly cited to him as a challenge, and repeatedly he set them aside when he conceived that they stood in the way of his gospel of love and forgiveness. 'Ye have heard it said by them of old time, but I say unto you . . . '. If the church takes such sayings with their obvious meaning, it faces a curious alternative. It may recognise that the attitude of its founder conflicts with its own, and in deference to his authority abandon its doctrine that all parts of Scripture are to be revered and accepted equally. Or, taking as its base its own account of what is essential to Christianity, it may conclude that the founder of Christianity was not himself a Christian."
"Augustine argued that since every child is born in original sin, it must, if it dies unbaptised, be punished in the eternal fire of hell, though it would somehow be granted a 'mitissima poena' there. Aquinas held that the majority of men are doomed to an eternity of torment every moment of which exceeds the worst that ever has been or can be endured on earth; and though he believed in a milder region of hell set apart for infants, he discouraged mothers from praying for children who died while unbaptised."
"Religious belief often stimulates and strengthens moral purpose; true. The thought of a divine person commanding us to do right, feeling pleasure when we obey and grief or anger when we do not, certainly provides an additional motive for right-doing. Still, such belief is not the true ground for morality, and, when so accepted, may obstruct the passage to moral maturity. The man who is morally mature prefers love to hate, happiness to misery, and knowledge to ignorance, not because God wills that he should so choose, or because he will be rewarded or punished for his choice. Indeed if he wills something merely because God wills it, he is in strictness failing to follow the divine example, since God presumably wills it not because he wills it - a hardly intelligible suggestion - but because it is good. And so far as one prefers good for the sake of a prospective reward, one is like the child whose 'goodness' is bought with chocolates.
"From this sort of confusion, at any rate, the man whose guide is rational insight is free. The ends of his life are set neither by dictation nor by an eschatological bait, but by such discernment as he has of good and evil. If his ethics are a poor thing, they are at least his own."
Pgs. 114 -115
"There is nothing arbitrary in taking reflectively interpreted experience as the court of last appeal. In the end, it is this or nothing. The sensations with which experience starts are compulsory; our interpretation of them in perception is compulsory; the laws of inference by which we develop and relate our perceptions are compulsory; and once we are launched on the enterprise of science, we find that the order of our experience is inexplicable except through a nature governed by law. The system of thought thus developed is a natural one, and the ideal of explanation through a system whose parts are intelligibly related is immanent at every state of the development. It is idle for any authority, religious or secular, to take its stand against this natural order of thought. Religious systems and scientific theories without number have set their lances in rest against it only to break themselves on it and disappear. Nor can there be pluralism where truth is concerned; to say that the bodily assumption is true for the Catholic, though untrue for Buddhist or Protestant, is only to say that one party thinks is is true and the other not; it could hardly mean that the dogma itself is both true and false. One or the other party must be mistaken.
"In the appraisal of Catholicism as of any other system of beliefs, we come then in the end to the question whether it can maintain itself in the light of human experience when this is itself systematised by the logical ideals implicit in it. The unavoidable answer seems to be No."
"The pursuit of truth for its own sake, however, is not the only business of intelligence. Many moralists would consider that its main use falls in the middle ground between motives on the one hand and remote goals on the other; it is the means of implementing desire in such a way that its ends may be achieved. Here foresight and inference are called for, and many kinds of special knowledge. We should feel sympathy for the sick, but if that sympathy is to be fully effective, it must be guided by medical expertise. We should feel charity for the poor, but if they are to be efficiently relieved, we must call in aid the knowledge of the economist, the sociologist, the psychologist, and the large-scale organiser. . . .
"The sympathy Jesus showed and taught was personal and immediate; he was the tactician, not the strategist of charity, dealing with each case as it arose, and - according to the record - resorting in emergencies not to the expert but to miracle. This stress on love and this understress on knowledge remained chracteristic of his followers for centuries."
"The ultimate warrant for a rule of conduct is not deliverance by authority, religious or otherwise, but its self-validating power when seen as belonging to a form of life which carries certain intrinsic values with it. Justice, wisdom, and beauty are not good because God approves them; if he approves them, it is because they are good. And the mere perception of these values is a powerful motive to their realisation. Indeed the insight that wisdom is better than ignorance is so effective a motive to the getting of wisdom that all three of the great Greek thinkers believed that if the insight was clear, action in accord with it followed inevitably. And though this is not quite true, it is very nearly so. Such insight and such a motive are not themselves religious. The existence of purely secular goodness has often puzzled religious persons, but there is not doubt of its existence. Take for example what may be done from devotion to the goods of the intellect, which we have just mentioned. If Benjamin Franklin gave of his substance to found the University of Pennsylvania, and Jefferson of his means and energy to found the University of Virginia, if Grote, James Mill, and Bentham did the same for University College, and Sidgwick for Newnham, it was not out of Christian motives, for none of them could be called Christian, but because (no doubt along with other motives) they prized the educated mind.
"The conclusion is that while the love of God, in one or other of its senses, may be, and often has been, a powerful supplementary motive, it is not, as the New Testament teaches, indispensable to the moral life, or on an equality with the other great principle of the love of man."
"Thus intrinsic value has a twofold condition; it belongs to those experiences alone that fulfill and satisfy, i.e. realise a demand of our nature and bring pleasure in the realisation. We have described these as 'conditions' of goodness. . . . the possession of the two characters named gives the very meaning of intrinsic goodness - not the meaning that lies on the surface, but the meaning ultimately required by analysis and reflection. This is not an emotivist view. I should insist that the judgement of value is not an interjection; it is the statement that a certain experience is, in the senses indicated, fulfilling and satisfying, a statement that is either true or false. Nor is it an egoistic view, for under like conditions the experience of others has values equal to my own. It is clearly a rationalist view in the sense that both the calculation of consequences and comparison and appraisal of these consequences are the work of reason. It prescribes as the ultimate rule of right conduct: So act as to produce the greatest net good of all affected by your action, the good consisting in experience that is at once fulfilling and satisfying."
Pgs. 559 - 560
"There has been much talk in recent years about ethical and cultural relativism by persons who think they can dispose of objective standards merely by pointing to diversities of custom. They would not argue this way in other fields. They would not hold that since masses of Chinese people believe that the moon goes into eclipse because a celestial dog bites a piece out of it, while Western astronomers deny this, there is no such thing as an objective standard in astronomy. They would scout the idea of a Russian and an American physics, or of a French and an Indian chemistry, each contradicting the other but with equal claims to validity. There is simply physics or chemistry, with one universal standard of truth, to which place, time, and nationality are irrelevant.
"I believe that, similarly, there is one universal standard of morality, set by the fundamental needs, and therefore ends of human nature. This standard is at work in men's minds implicitly long before it is given explicit shape; its demands become firmer and clearer as it is acted upon, and more generally accepted as social intercourse widens. That its existence is really recognised is attested by such bodies as the United Nations and the World Court, which assume that when a protest is brought before them in the name of justice the term has a common meaning, and that with patience and good will a rational judgement may be achieved. It is true that reasonableness in morals is more difficult and elusive than reasonableness in mathematics; emotions are more deeply engaged and the appraisal of human values calls for richer resources of imagination and sympathy. Reasonableness in the concrete is indeed infinitely and impossibly difficult. Fortunately, it is not one's duty to be infinitely and impossibly rational. It is one's duty only to be a reasonable as one can. If even that were seriously accepted, the world would be strangely different tomorrow morning."
"Reasonableness is not knowledge or learning, though this may help. It is not intelligence, which is in the main a native gift, most unevenly distributed, though if present this too will help. It is not skill in abstraction or in analysis or in argument or in expression, though again these are valuable aids. The reasonableness we are talking about is, rather, a settled dispoostion of mind. It is a disposition to guide one's belief and conduct by evidence, a bent of the will to order one's thought by the relevant facts, and to order one's practice in the light of the values involved. It is the habit of using reflective judgement as the compass of one's belief and decision. Since it is a habit, it is not native, but acquired; as something independent of great natural endowment, it can be acquired in degree by any normal person with sufficient interest in acquiring it."
"Take reason seriously. It has been from the beginning the unrealised architect of religion, of conduct, of the world, but almost always doing its work under the interference of interests alien to its own. Give it its head. Let it shape belief and conduct freely. It will shape them aright if anything can."
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