“Teach a rat to expect punishment whenever a certain bell rings and a reward whenever a different bell rings; then ring both bells together. The rat will show confusion, timidity and indecision. In much the same way Christians today, confused by the ringing of many bells, are filled with indecision and a timid spirit.”
These are words with which Nels Ferre, the American theologian, begins his book “Return to Christianity”, and they are words which bring sharply before us something of the result of the modern search for truth, and the confused situation it has created for very many. We have delighted in many bells, only to find after a time that they developed unpleasant cracks, so that their music was ruined.
For many the bell that has given the most hope has been that of science, and indeed, we are all greatly indebted to our scientists. We could not go through a day without making use in countless ways of the product of their ingenuity, and the whole complexity of modern living owes much at every turn to what science has produced. The homes we live in, the clothing we wear, the jobs at which we work, our recreations, all these in one way and another are the product of the modern scientific age.
Science moreover, has slain many giants. We no longer believe in witches; and superstitions and ignorances which shackled men of former generations have gone by the board (even though there linger some curious relics in unlikely places). We are freer today because of the gains made by science in giving us a picture of the world which is our home.
Perhaps even more important is the gift of the scientific method, with its patient inquiry, its refusal to be bound by preconceived ideas, its insistence on observation and experiment, its reverence for fact, and impatience with barren theorizing.
And yet – the bell is cracked. When we look back to the palmy days of the last century when the leaders of scientific thought pushed forward the conviction that they were ushering mankind into an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity, a kind of practical Utopia, and contrast that with what has emerged in our day, we can only feel that the sound that science has given out is something vastly different from what was hoped and intended. The brotherhood of man has failed to eventuate, and while we have an abundance of gadgets, and an increasing facility for satisfying all our material needs, our deepest needs are not met, and men in general are farther from satisfaction at the deepest level than they were.
More, science is not concerned with ultimate reality. Its field is confined to phenomena, and from the nature of the case it cannot give information about that which is beyond phenomena, so that those who put their trust in it, not only are not satisfied, but cannot be satisfied.
In the face of all this many have thought that the hope of man is to be seen in religious faith, but it must be a religious faith adapted to modern needs. So the modernist movement came into being, and with it something of value in the attempt to express the essence of the faith in a way in which it could be understood by men of the twentieth century.
But basically the modernist movement was alien to the authentic spirit of Christianity. Its standards were those of science and reason, and it does not seem really to have understood the nature of faith. It discounted the Bible, and while giving lip-service to the idea of revelation, cut itself off from the voice of God. It was intellectualistic and smacked too much of a cool humanism. It killed itself, as Ferre says, by its low birth rate. Faith has drive and vigour. Modernism lacks both.
That is not to say that those who have kept to the old paths are necessarily on the right track. Too often they too, to revert to our earlier metaphor, have rung a bell which is cracked. It is easier to mouth a shibboleth than to fight a campaign, and many would sooner take refuge in ritual and the satisfied recital of accepted dogmas than fight the good fight of faith. So often orthodoxy has been hard and self-satisfied, smug and complacent, indifferent to the challenge to complete consecration, and to the living out of the implications of the Christian doctrine of love. It is not in such a way of life that the authentic bell of Christianity will sound through our modern civilization.
“The Truth shall make you Free”
The modern search for truth in ultimate things, then, will not and cannot be satisfied by the onward march of science, nor in all that is summed up in the modernist movement. It will not be quieted by a lifeless assent to ancient formulas and practice, but only by a living faith. “The truth shall make you free” said the Lord, but the truth is not to be understood in isolation from Him. “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The point is that truth is not something abstract which can be apprehended by the methods of science or the like, or imprisoned within the formulae beloved by the traditionalist. The truth can only be known by knowing Him who is the Way and the Truth and the Life, and to know Him means to commit oneself wholeheartedly to Him.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, May 12, 1955.