Monday, October 6, 2014

Modernism and Pragmatism

Fifth in a Series treating Modernism and Modern Thought
Fr. Joseph Bampton, S.J.

In our last lecture, we saw how Modernism deals with dogma, and we took as an illustration the dogma of Christ's resurrection. The Modernist's method is to accept the dogma, and to accept the very terms in which it is stated, and then to interpret them in his own way. Thus, in the example cited, a Modernist, like a Catholic, would profess his belief in Christ's resurrection. He would say it is quite true. But if you ask him in what sense true, he would answer: "Not true to fact, not true historically, but true in another sense, and that other sense two-fold. First, it is true symbolically, as a symbol of truth." And if you ask: "What is that truth of which Christ's resurrection is a symbol?" the Modernist answers: "The truth that the divine personality of Jesus cannot die." That, in the first place, is the truth which the Modernist tells us the dogma of Christ's resurrection conveys to him. And this is a truth of a theoretical or speculative kind. We discussed it in our last lecture. But, besides this, he tells us that the dogma conveys to him a practical truth also, and that practical truth he states thus: "'Jesus is risen,' means deal with Him as you would have done before His death, as you deal with a contemporary" (Leroy). The dogma of Christ's resurrection, thus believed, is true with practical truth, with instrumental truth; it is an instrument of practical value for the believer. He derives benefit from his belief.

For both these reasons, then, the Modernist assures us, the dogma of Christ's resurrection is to be called true.

We saw in our last lecture what is to be thought of dogma interpreted symbolically. We come now to consider what is to be thought of dogma interpreted practically or instrumentally.

It is to this latter form of interpretation that many Modernists seem to attach most importance. "A dogma has above all a practical meaning [...] it is first and foremost a rule of practical conduct [...] therein lies its principal value " - so writes a well-known Modernist, and he illustrates his meaning by examples. Thus: "'God is a Personal Being,' means conduct yourself in your relations with God as you would in your relations with a personal human being. [...] In like manner, the dogma of the Real Presence means that one should adopt the same attitude in presence of the consecrated Host, that one would adopt in presence of Jesus made visible to the eye" (Leroy).

Observe the Modernists' standpoint. "We do not say," they explain, "that these dogmas are true to fact. On the contrary, in some instances at least, as in that of Christ's resurrection, we expressly deny it. But still we say that they are not to be called false. For they are true in two senses. First, with symbolic truth; secondly, with practical or instrumental truth. Although they are not true to fact, you may act as if they were, and you are the better for doing so." It is only this latter value of dogma we are to discuss now, its practical value. And on hearing it stated, it occurs to us at once to say this is Pragmatism.

Modernism, it will be remembered, seeks to interpret Christianity in terms of modern thought. The system to which the name of Pragmatism has been given is certainly modern enough. As its name sufficiently indicates, it is nothing if not practical. It had its origin, as was appropriate, in America, that land of strenuous practical endeavour, and its chief exponent is an American - the late Professor W. James. Now Pragmatism stands, among other things, for a theory of truth, and the pragmatic theory of truth is this: practice is the test of truth. "An idea is true so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives" (James). To which the retort is obvious: that is not truth, it is a misuse of the term, that is utility or expediency, not truth. Say, rather, an idea is useful or expedient or convenient, so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives, but do not say it is true. And the Pragmatist candidly admits that to him truth is expediency. "The true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving" (James). This is sufficiently startling. But the Pragmatisgt goes further still. "Truth in our ideas means their power to work." "Pragmatism's only test of truth is what works best." "If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily [...] it is true" (James). In other words, the truth of any particular statement is an hypothesis, a working theory, and so the truth of God's existence is a working theory, on a par with any other working theory, such as the nebular theory, or the atomic theory, or theories of electrons and ether and the rest. But working theories change. The working theory of today is rejected tomorrow in favour of a theory which works better. Does truth change too? The Pragmatist says yes: "We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood" (James).

So truth is a variable quantity, and must be according to this account of the matter. For truth being "that which works best," it can only be tested and verified by our experience of its working. But experience varies. The experience of one man varies from the experience of another; nay, the same man's experience may vary from day to day, and therefore truth varies, too.

Such is the Pragmatists' theory of truth stated in their own words, and it must be owned that it is a novel theory. What is truth? Pilate asked our Lord. That question was not answered. And the world has been debating it ever since. The answers returned have been many, and often contradictory. Other systems have agreed with Pragmatism in holding truth to be relative, subjective, variable, shifting. But I think it has been reserved to Pragmatism to define truth as expediency, to say: "The true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking." That gives us the measure of Pragmatism.

There can be no doubt that Pragmatism owes something to the influence of Kant. We have already heard in a previous lecture of Kant's "Regulative Principles of Conduct," a term which recalls one of the Pragmatist's main positions. By his insistence on the moral law, the law of action, as the basis of truth, Kant may be said to have prepared the way for that gospel of action which is known as Pragmatism. Modernism seems unable to rid itself of the influence of Kant. We are not surprised to find, then, that Modernism adopts the pragmatic theory of truth, and applies it to dogma. How completely it adopts it appears from such passages as the following: "Truth is from first to last an instrument, or rather a factor of life and action" (Tyrrell). In other words, an idea is true for its instrumental value. This is the instrumental truth of the Modernist, which we thus see to be identical with truth as the Pragmatist defines it. Again, still more explicitly: "The truth (of an idea) means, go here or there; do this or that" (Tyrrell). That is to say, truth is only a practical rule of conduct. And, having thus adopted the Pragmatist theory of truth, the Modernist applies it to dogma. "I admit," writes one Modernist, "the fundamental positions of Christianity [...] not as doctrines demonstrated but as accepted rules" (Murri). And another: "As regards the foundations of Catholicism, the doctrines of the immortality of the soul, of the existence of a personal God, of the divinity of Christ, in them we recognise the Pragmatist attitude. [...] We insist upon the relativity of these dogmatic conceptions, their purely practical value, their temporary character. They have, in fact, nourished for long ages the religious sense of the human race" (Houtin). In words like these, Modernists identify themselves with Pragmatists to the extent at least of identifying their theory of truth with theirs, and applying it to dogma. So that it has been truly said: "Modernism is an application of Pragmatism to religious beliefs" (Houtin). The Modernist's instrumental truth is nothing more or less than the Pragmatist's truth of expediency. But a system which, like the Pragmatist, cynically declares that "the true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving," such a system to a Catholic stands self-refuted and self-condemned. The Modernist cannot escape his share in that condemnation.

"What is truth?" When a Catholic is asked that question in reference to dogma, when he is asked what he means when he says that a dogma of the faith is true, he replies that he means first and foremost that the dogma is true in the ordinary acceptation of the term, that it is true inasmuch as it corresponds with fact, with reality. Thus, to a Catholic, the dogma of Christ's resurrection means that Christ has risen in very deed from the dead. This being conceded, the Catholic is quite ready to admit that the dogma may have a symbolical and a practical or instrumental value, too: a symbolical value, because Christ's resurrection is the symbol of ours, and a practical or instrumental value, because of the practical bearing of Christ's resurrection upon our life and death and resurrection. And you may, if you please, call these symbolical and instrumental values the symbolical and instrumental truth of the dogma. But these symbolical and instrumental values of a dogma do not constitute its truth. They are consequences of its being true. It has a truth of its own independently of them; and these values depend upon its truth.

To say, as Modernists say, that a dogma is not true to fact, but is true symbolically, is, as we have shown already, to reduce dogma to allegory. And to say, as Modernists say, that a dogma is not true to fact, but is true instrumentally or practically, is to reduce all dogma to precept, to a rule of conduct, and, if that is the only truth claimed for it, it is to reduce all dogma to a rule of thumb; it is to deprive our faith of all intellectual basis.

The more advanced Modernists would admit this. A recent writer, speaking of one of the leaders of the movement, M. H├ębert, says: "He turned the teachings of religion into pious and moral allegories, whose practical efficacy seemed to him to be their raison d'etre and justification" (Houtin). In other words, the only use of dogma lies in its symbolic and pragmatic interpretation!

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