Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Handy Professor of Philosophy, Western Reserve University

A "PREMISE" is defined as "a proposition laid down, proved, supposed, or assumed, that serves as a ground for argument or for a conclusion" (StandardDictionary). Now I do not count it to be my task in such a paper as this to "argue" or to "prove" anything; but rather to "lay down" certain truths (as they seem to me to be) which, if granted, appear to lead to a certain definite "conclusion"--viz., that "Catholic thinking" is the sanest and most consistent type of thinking. I shall attempt, therefore, to start at the very beginning of things, and to build up a series of propositions which may lead us step by step to the threshold of the Catholic system, leaving it to others who come later in this series to lead us across that threshold. In other words, I am to be a modest Virgil, rather than the Beatrice, of our expedition.

The premises to be suggested will be sixteen in number, grouped under four heads of four propositions each. The first group will have to do with the general meaning of Life, the second with God, the third with Truth, and the fourth with the Christian religion. Let us, then, proceed with our enumeration.


1. That I exist, and that there is a world beyond me. The only absolutely indubitable truth is that which may be expressed in the phrase, Something goes on--or, Being is. Analysis of this "something"--which we most naturally denominate "experience," by the way--yields, however, two inevitable conditions as bound up with the very fact of experience itself, and without which such experience could never be. These inevitable conditions or implications of experience are (a) that / who have the experience exist, and (b) that something which I may call a world also exists as the object of that experience. This twofold truth seems to be the natural starting-point of any quest into the meaning of things.

2. That life involves proper adjustments between myself and that world. This is not a definition of life, but rather a statement of the conditions necessary for life to go on. All students of life in any sense of that term agree that it involves a binding together in most intimate relationship of the two factors of our first proposition--"I" and the "world beyond." So long as this relationship continues, life goes on: the moment the proper relationship is broken life ceases to exist. But what kind of a thing is this "world" to which we must adjust ourselves? Our next proposition must grapple with this question.

3. That among the constituents of that world are to be included the great "spiritual values"--Beauty, Goodness, Truth, and Love. With this proposition we enter the realm of controversy. Disregarding certain more or less subtle variations of theory, there are three main alternative views of the nature of our world: (a) the view known as Materialism, which holds that everything that may be called real is either itself material or else is a product in some sense of matter, and that the so-called "spiritual values" named above are but more or less illusory effusions of the brains of human organisms; (b) the view best known as Spiritualism, which regards persons and their spiritual ideals as the only ultimate realities, and the material universe as a mere embodiment or phenomenal expression of these spiritual realities; and (c) Dualism, which divides the world into two distinct and irreducible realms, matter and spirit, somehow interacting with each other. Now it is evident that we cannot enter into controversy over these difficult matters in a paper as brief as this must be; but I think it is equally evident that, of these three world views, only materialism is definitely anti-Christian, and that Catholic thought may be developed equally well on the basis of dualism or of spiritualism. And it is a striking fact that, though we still have materialists of a sort in our midst, they usually nowadays prefer to call their philosophies "Naturalism," and are far more inclined than they used to be to concede some place to man's higher ideals in the general scheme of things. Once granting that the world is not wholly material we can pass cheerfully on to our next proposition: 4. That life is worth living. If life is but a form of atomic motion, or the expression of a blind force leading nowhere, despair and pessimism may very well drown out the fires of enthusiasm in the soul of man; but if Beauty, Goodness, Truth, and Love have a place in the world to which the living man adjusts himself, Happiness also may be his lot, and la joie de vivre have a real meaning.


In our preceding section we found that there is a spiritual world or "world of values" with which we may establish relations, and that this relationship is what makes life truly worth living. Next we must inquire into the source from which the world, including ourselves, derives its existence; and this brings us to our fifth proposition:

5. That the world has its Source in a personal God. This is the position known as Theism, whose chief rivals in the philosophical world today are (a) Pantheism, which denies the distinct personality of God; and (b) Atheism, which denies His existence. Into the numerous arguments for the existence of God we cannot go: all of them are complex, with many points of value, and yet many of questionable significance; none of them has the finality and con-clusiveness of a mathematical demonstration or a logical syllogism, though each contributes some suggestion which points toward the theistic conclusion, and their cumulative force is impressive. Faith and experience must cast their weight into the balance, and when they do the case for the divine origin of things is made.

As for the contention that personality lies at the heart of the universe, it is hard to see how such a complex phenomenon as human personality could ever arise if the Source of Life was not itself also personal. An existing world calls for an existing source, life for a living source, and personality for a personal one; and to explain these higher realities as merely "emerging" out of the lower, and let it go at that, is to leave thought swinging in mid-air. Furthermore, Beauty, Goodness, Truth, and Love are meaningless words apart from persons; and if these are objective realities they cannot be dependent for their existence on human personalities.

6. That we can know at least something of that God. The truth of this proposition is to some extent implied in the way we have discussed the immediately preceding one; but what is meant by "knowledge" in the present assertion is more properly personal knowledge, or "knowledge of acquaintance," rather than mere rational knowledge or knowledge of argument--knowledge of rather than merely about God. The agnostic denies that we can know anything of or about Him, one way or the other. Fifty years ago Herbert Spencer used to urge men to admit that the essence of things is unknowable, but at the same time to worship that Unknowable. But this is an impossible attitude, as all would, I think, agree today; and although it is perfectly true, as we have admitted, that God cannot be proved irrefutably to exist, He can assuredly be found in experience if we will take the trouble to look for Him. Nothing can be known if it does not make itself known to us through its properties, and if we do not on our part exert ourselves to find it. And so it is with God: Revelation and Faith are the two correlative factors in the knowledge of Him--revelation on His part, faith on ours. But He has revealed Himself plentifully, in nature, in history, and in the human soul: all that is necessary, then, to know Him is that act of the spirit which we call faith.

7. That we can enter into personal relations with God here and now. We cannot have personal relations with an unknown being, hence this proposition plainly presupposes its immediate predecessor; and conversely, to know God, the Source of all Good, is to love that Being, and to desire to enter into personal relations with Him. And it is this life of personal communion with God that constitutes the very essence of religion--a communion founded on "the knowledge and love of God," entered upon by faith, and realized in prayer.

8. That religion is the completion of life. If life is the adjustment of man to the universe, if God is the Source of the universe and of man, and if religion is that aspect of life which brings man into personal relations with God, then life without religion is empty and vain, leaving man but inadequately adjusted to his world.

With this proposition, asserting the place and value of religion in life, we have arrived at a definite turning point in our progress. In our next section we undertake a quest into the place and value of truth in religion, and by way of that we proceed in our final section to a consideration of the nature and truth of Christianity.


9. That truth is as important in religion as in other matters. It is a strange fact that so many persons who lay so much stress upon the importance--nay, necessity--of distinguishing truth from falsehood in the ordinary affairs of earthly life, and so many scientific men who make the "search for truth" in the realm of nature their one central endeavor, seem to regard truth in religion to be of quite secondary, or even negligible, importance. This is the case even with many devout religious men, as well as with those who are merely indifferent; the religion of the former group, however, can be but a sentimental one, and the indifference of the latter may very well be the result of a healthy revulsion against such sentimentality. "Religion is a life, not a creed," true; but unless the activities of religion are based on clear and true ideas their basis can never be more than a sentimental one. A skeleton is to most persons a rather revolting sight as compared to living "flesh and blood"; but how can flesh and blood live without a skeleton, and who likes a "spineless" man? So it is with religion: religious ideas as such may be interesting only to the theologian, but they constitute the backbone of religion, and the religious life cannot be a healthy life without them.

10. That we can know things even when we cannot understand them. We have seen that there are two meanings of the word "knowledge"--knowledge "of," and knowledge "about." Now we assert that knowledge in both senses of the term has two degrees--apprehension and comprehension. To apprehend a person, thing, or truth is to be aware of it as existing and as having certain properties or characteristics; to comprehend that person, thing, or truth is to understand it in all its relations--its causes, its purpose, its membership in some class or species, etc. Now it is perfectly obvious that in the ordinary affairs of life we know many persons, things, and truths without in the least understanding them: Why, then, should so many individuals refuse in religious matters to believe what they cannot understand? An understanding of physiology on the part of some people is essential, if the rest of us are to live healthy lives. But / do not need to know physiology in order to live, nor does anyone understand the human body perfectly. So in religion there must be theologians, even if no theologian can pretend really to "comprehend" God; but we do not all have to be theologians in order to live healthy, spiritual lives. Religious truth, then, is a matter of apprehension: comprehension is by no means necessary.

11. That the Bible is on the whole a reliable source of religious truth. At our present stage, we need go no further than this. It does not imply infallibility, even in religious matters; nor does it imply even reliability in scientific matters, or in matters of secular history; nor does it imply that the Bible is the only reliable source of religious truth, or that we may not learn something of religious value from the sacred writings of other religious--the Upanishads or the Koran. The Bible has a very human side to it, but it also has a divine side: it is the word of many fallible men, but that does not prevent it from being also the Word of God in the sense of being a record of divine revelation, the study of which is at least as spiritually profitable as that of any other book.

12. That Jesus Christ has revealed God and His will more completely than any other religious teacher. Again we need claim no more than this at this stage. If anyone who knows the teachings of the various founders of religions thinks that Buddha or Moses or Mohammed is a greater religious teacher than Jesus Christ, we have nothing more to say to him. On the other hand, one may regard the teachings of Jesus to be superior to those of the other religious prophets, and yet fall far short of accepting and practising the Christian religion. But if one agrees with what has already been said on the subject of religion in general, and also admits the truth of the present proposition, he is well on the way to being a Christian, and one more step will carry him across the threshold.


13. That personal fellowship with Jesus Christ brings man into personal fellowship with God. For the Christian, Christ is the Way to the Father in a sense not applicable to any other religious leader. Hence, if religion is personal fellowship with God, the Christian religion is personal fellowship with God in Christ. Merely to follow the moral precepts of Christ as set forth in the New Testament, or to endeavor sincerely so to do, is to be a Christian only in the ethical sense of that term; but to enter into personal relations with the ever-living Christ is to live the Christian religion.

14. That Jesus Christ is God. Though the shortest of all our propositions in form, this is the most tremendous in significance, since it asserts the identity of a lowly prophet living a brief life in a remote corner of this infinitesimal planet two thousand years ago with the Almighty and Eternal Ruler of the universe. It would be unfair to deny the name of "Christian" to one who, having followed us up to this point, was unable to continue with us in our assertion of the Godhead of Christ. Though traditional Christianity, in its Protestant as well as its Catholic forms, is united in the proclamation of this truth, so-called "liberal" Christianity is united in the rejection of it. To deny that Jesus Christ is preeminently the Way to the Father, as asserted by our immediately preceding proposition, is to place oneself outside the Christian religion altogether; but one may accept this as true, and yet hesitate to admit that Christ and the Father are one God. But unless one is willing to take this further step, his Christianity is basically defective.

15. That Jesus Christ founded a Church to carry His life and truth to succeeding generations. As traditional and "liberal" Christianity divide on the question of the deity of Christ, so Catholic and Protestant Christianity divide on the question of the divine character of the Church. To the Protestant the Church is merely the collection of the faithful, bound together by certain common interests and beliefs, and union with Christ is a private act on the part of each individual who attains it. To the Catholic, the Church is a divinely generated and living organism, the instrument through which Jesus Christ conveys His life and truth to all His brethren, and union with Christ is distinctly a corporate act. Hence, our final proposition--

16. That membership in the Church of Christ brings man into personal union with Christ. If the Church is really what the Catholic claims it to be as above set forth, the truth of the final proposition inevitably follows. Furthermore, if religion is a life of personal fellowship with God, and if Christianity is a life of personal fellowship with God through union with Christ, then the Catholic religion is a life of personal fellowship with God through membership in the Church of Christ. To the Catholic, the falsity of the too popular antithesis between Christianity and "Churchianity" is clear. That many Churchmen are poor Christians and that many professing Christians fail sadly to live up to their profession is true enough--as is the converse fact that many Protestant Christians put their Catholic brethren to shame in their devotion to their Lord. But as the Bible has a human as well as a divine side, so has the Church, and the Body of Christ is not to be blamed for the disloyalty of its members.

We have now reached the end of our journey. If we may liken the Christian religion to a great Temple, we may say that, as our thirteenth proposition carried us across the threshold of the outer court of that Temple, our final proposition brings us to the threshold of the inner court wherein stands the Altar of the Catholic faith. Here our task of setting forth the necessary premises of Catholic thinking is brought, however inadequately, to its conclusion; granting these premises, the truth of the entire Catholic system follows inevitably, but the obligation of working out these premises has been left to other and more capable hands.

Project Canterbury