In Religious Experience and Truth, Sidney Hook, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1961).

FAITH, LANGUAGE, AND RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE:
A DIALOGUE

ARTHUR C. DANTO

Enwrap in misty cloud, with lips
that stammer, hymn chanters
wander and are discontented.

Rig Veda, X, 82.

A: The conflict between science and religious faith! Fancy raising that old ghost. I thought by now we were all agreed that religious language, like scientific language, has its own validity in the contexts in which it is appropriate to use it. And since the contexts are different, a conflict could hardly arise. Except trivially, one doesn't celebrate Mass in the laboratory. Nor measure mass in the cathedral.

B: That notion of validity may be valid at Oxford. But not here. I'm glad the issue was raised. I believe there is a conflict, and your pun only clouds it over. As if religion were merely a matter of performing rituals! Surely some religious utterances mean to state a truth, and so undertake to do the job which scientific sentences, by common consent, are meant to do. So, in principle, a conflict can arise -- even if the conflicting sentences are uttered in laboratory and cathedral respectively.

A: You surely wouldn't want to say that every so-called scientific sentence asserts, or means to assert, a truth: scientific sentences do all sorts of jobs. But considering only those sentences which do mean to do this job -- they can conflict with religious sentences only if they are about the same things. But I would deny that this is ever the case.

B: There is nothing which scientific sentences cannot be about. There are no limits set for science in point of subject matter. And simply as a matter of fact, scientists and religionists have talked about the same things.

A: Oh, there may well have been such disputes. But these arose only because each party misrepresented the scope of his own discipline. You, apparently, are victim to the same delusion. What do you mean by "faith," for instance?

B: One might do worse than use the old notion of which Professor Hook reminded us: to have faith is to hold for true a belief for which there is insufficient evidence. I may have great confidence in some hypothesis, and believe very strongly that experiment will bear me out. But, quoting Nietzsche, "Strong faith proves only its strength, and not the truth of what is believed in."1 I have no right to assert my hypothesis until I have other than subjective grounds for doing so. But religious people act as though they had such a right. I'll bet you would drop your language-game immunities fast enough if you had sufficient evidence for any of your beliefs!

A: In fact we have evidence, strong evidence, but you are doubtless too narrow to regard it as such. But what in general can you mean by "sufficient evidence?" If we set our standard of "sufficient evidence" sufficiently high -- none of our beliefs after all admit of perfect certainty -- everything becomes faith, for everything we believe is now based upon insufficient evidence. And it would be wholly arbitrary on your part to specify a degree of confirmation such that any sentence confirmed to a lesser degree becomes faith. For I, with equal justification, could specify an upward revision. But anyway, the difference between scientific and religious beliefs cannot simply be a matter of differing degrees of confirmedness. The hypothesis to which you referred a moment back did not pass from religion to science in virtue of successfully passing tests. And should there have been a conflicting hypothesis which was disconfirmed when your hypothesis was confirmed, it would not thereby be relegated to religion.

B: No, but it would become a matter of faith if someone were to now hold it for true. By faith I shall mean holding a sentence true when there exists evidence which a reasonable man would regard as sufficient for holding its contradictory. We scientists relinquish our beliefs in such circumstances. But not religious people. There, if you like, is the difference between us.

A: I am not prepared to grant this as a characterization of religious faith, for which, as I said, evidence is available to those not hardened to reality. You are thinking of such cases as these, perhaps. A man has faith in his success when the world has written him off as a failure. Or in his wife's chastity when half the village knows her for a trull.

B: Exactly. And only consider, if I may play your game, the contexts in which we would say "I believe in . . ." or "I have faith that. . . ." We use such propositional attitudes only when a belief has been challenged, for purpose of expressing our resolve to go on believing. If there were something wrong with the evidence brought against us, or if we were privy to a fact unavailable to our challengers, we would simply say he was wrong and show why. Instead, we take a stand. Of course I can understand this. The man has his back to the wall, and to give up his belief will mean the collapse of his universe. But that doesn't make faith a rational thing. Rationally, we ought to face the facts and not persist in illusion.

A: It is a part of the concept of faith that a man's faith be tried, even that he should be alone in his faith. But there are martyrs in the history of science and religion alike. And let me point out that you and I try one another's faiths. Is it not true that you are committed in advance to stand by certain of your beliefs no matter what contravening evidence religion might bring forth?

B: You want to try my faith. But you are hardly likely to produce evidence in support of religious beliefs.

A: Why do you say that with such force? Is it not because, as a scientist, there are certain beliefs which you hold, and must go on holding, if you are to do science at all? Beliefs you would not allow to be abrogated? The conflict between science and religion is then a conflict between faiths. I have this in mind: you are antecedently committed to the view that there are no ultimate dark spots in the fabric of things, and that everything, in the fullness of time, must yield to scientific understanding and explanation. Einstein wrote: "The regulations valid for the world existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason."2 And surely, to say that there must always be a natural explanation is to announce a creed? If I then insist that there are ultimate mysteries, even claim to be able to point them out, you would remain unshaken in your faith. Unless, indeed, you were to convert. For a conversion it would be -- from one faith to another.3

B: I am a scientist, interested in finding solutions to problems I regard as genuine. I believe these problems admit of solution, though I may not be clever or lucky enough to find them. If I fail, the fault at least does not lie with the world, and I should hope sooner or later that my colleagues or our successors will do what I could not. If you refer to this, then, indeed, I have faith of a kind. And so perhaps has every scientist. It may even be true that had they not had this faith, science could never have arisen or advanced. But this would then be a psychological fact concerning scientists, or a sociological fact concerning science considered externally. For the "faith" is not part of science itself. You will not find "The universe is comprehensible to reason" listed amongst the sentences which together make up a theory in physics, or chemistry, or what science you will.4 And even were you to insert it, say as an independent postulate, it would be inert, and play no logical role there: "A wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism."5 As for the sentences which are part of the machine, no scientist is prepared to defend them come what may. Of course, a man might try very hard to make a favorite hypothesis stick. Like Priestley. But this, while possibly his faith is not science's. I add, by way of an ad hominem remark, that you religionists don't, as a matter of fact, treat science as a faith amongst faiths. Have you not time and again given up beliefs of yours which conflicted with science (in my sense)? Do any of you seriously defend Genesis against geology today? Yet I have not seen any comparable readiness to retreat when conflicts arise between competing religions.

A: It is not quite true to say that they have been given up -- they have been seen in a new light, and interpreted so as to remove the alleged conflict.

B: But isn't that just the same thing as to have given them up? I mean, you obviously are not saying that Genesis is true. Where then does "interpretation" get you? Suppose P and Q are respectively scientific and religious sentences, that P and Q are incompatible, and that you accept P. Then let R be an interpretation of Q. If R is equivalent to Q, the conflict remains, for now R is incompatible with P, and hense false if P is true. If not equivalent, then R now turns out to be incompatible with Q. So either you remain in conflict with science, or you enter into conflict with the faith of your fathers.6

A: You miss the point. Genesis was literally false all along. People failed to see it for what it was, an ambitious metaphor. And a metaphor may be true. though the sentence which expresses it, taken literally, is false.

B: All you tell me is that you have shifted ground since last century's controversies. And this just makes my point for me. There was no attempt, until science arose and threatened it, for religionists to decide that their canon was a tissue of metaphor. But up to that time there were plenty of opportunities to concede this, since there were plenty of conflicts between religions. In those days you condemned your opponents as heretics or worshippers of false gods. I won't push you on the fact that there are inconsistencies even within your own canon.

A: I want to grant your point and then go on to show how little comes of granting it. Consider this analogy. The camera showed (as Socrates' mirror should have done) that representation was not a sufficient condition for art. Kandinsky showed that it was not even a necessary condition. The essence of art lies elsewhere, and works qualify as artistic independently of whether or not they are representational. The old masters thought differently, but they produced art in spite of not quite understanding what they were doing. So with my forebears. They mislocated the essence of religion and felt themselves obliged to defend every sentence of the canon. The Bible contains religious truth independently of whether it contains literal truth or not. The Genesis controversies had the valuable consequence of making us see this fact.

B: Non-objective religion! You then give up making cognitive claims? The issue goes by default. I win.

A: Not quite. My fundamentalist forebears, well meaning as they were, erred in feeling they must pitch their faith where they did. They might, as I, have given Genesis up and retained their faith intact. Genesis tells a lovely story, and makes a point, but it is bad cosmology and worse geology. But lest this, like illusions in epistemology, threaten every claim to empirical knowledge, I will go further. I will concede that every sentence in the Bible which can possibly conflict with science is to be given up. The Bible, of course, contains a number of true statements, and I understand that it has become a valuable tool for the archeologist. But even such literal truths as there may be are dismissed by me from the body of faith: consider it expunged of whatever sentence science may confirm or disconfirm.

B: That's it, is it not? What do you plan to do, now that religion is finished?

A: It's not finished, only purified. And there still remains a conflict between you and me, though not between science and religion. We believe in, and our faith rests upon, the occurrence of a miracle. Thus: "The Eternal has entered the time-series and become Temporal."7 I don't suppose science denies this? The denial of it is not included amongst the sentences which make up theories in physics, chemistry, or whatever you regard as science. Nor would it do to list it as an independent postulate, so to speak. For it would not be part of the machinery. To be sure, it is a terribly dark thing I refer to, and utterly incomprehensible to reason, and so conflicts with the belief (dare I say "faith"?) that "the universe is comprehensible to reason." But this you have conceded not to be part of science. We have each effected a purgation. I have cleansed religion of everything which might fall within the province of science. And you have purged science of whatever might clash with religion -- including the very principle I would have thought to have animated your entire enterprise. Or do you want to reconsider, and relocate "the universe is comprehensible to reason" within the body of science? In that case, as a scientist, you must stand ready to relinquish it upon discovering dark spots in the universe. Which you now must allow as possible, if only to save your belief from vacuity.

B: You would not really want me to take it back into science. For then, by your criterion, you would have to give up your belief in dark spots. For this would not rest upon a claim which would, by my fiat, fall within the province of science. But I need not make this move. For your belief happens to conflict with logic, which I consider part of science. Indeed, you make it very easy for me. To say that something is eternal is to say that temporal predicates are inapplicable to it. It is self-contradictory then to say that something is both temporal and nontemporal. And please spare me any pious reference to life as being bigger than logic and God as being bigger than both. You can't turn your back on logic. You may be irrational enough to believe in what is impossible, just as Tertullian was insane enough to believe in what is absurd. But impossibility (and absurdity) are given content, after all, by logic. Had you no commitment to logic, you would not have what to believe. The question is why you want to be so perverse.

A: It only sounds impossible. But that is because our understanding here is limited. Our faith is that this is what happened. But we don't know how or why. We see as through a glass darkly.

B: The fact is that you don't understand what you believe in. We scientists at least know what we mean when we assert something, and then we try and find out whether it is true. You seem to work reversely: first you take something for true, and then you hope to find out what it means. Suppose a friend and I are trapped by the proprieties into sitting through a lecture in Turkish. My friend afterwards tells me that every word of it was true. I commend him on his knowledge of an exotic language, but he disclaims such knowledge: he hopes, he says, someday to understand Turkish. I call him either weird or silly. But now I think I know what faith is, or at least religious faith. It is not, as I thought, to hold onto a belief in the teeth of contrary evidence. For apparently nothing can count for or against a proposition, the meaning of which we do not know. How then could there be a conflict between science and religion? Faith is a matter of defending an incomprehensible proposition.

A: You show your shallowness. The language is, and must be, paradoxical. It makes plain by not making plain. Its purpose is to show how exceptional and how awesome a thing it is which we worship. The paradox is there, at the heart of things. Christ was human, and fully so. And he was fully divine as well. Temporal and eternal. Ordinarily, of course, "is human" and "is divine" are contrary predicates, and contrast with one another. But contrary predicates are both true of Jesus. Or Krishna, if you are a Hindu. Or Buddha if you accept the Lotus Sutra. Christ is a paradoxical entity. I accept logic everywhere but here, and my acceptance of it helps to throw the entire world into contrast with the dark spot at its core.

B: I don't understand a word you say. And neither do you.

A: "It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it does not understand, and what these things are. . . . The paradox is not a consession but a category, an ontological relation between an existing cognitive spirit and an eternal truth."8 So wrote Kierkegaard -- who incidentally helped do for religion what Kandinsky did for art.

B: We should have to change our assessment of Kandinsky were we to discover that his paintings showed the world as he saw it. For then it would not be a case of nonrepresenting, which was to have been his contribution to the concept of art, but rather a case of representing the world abnormally. Enlarging rather than eliminating the subject matter. But that's inconsistent with what you said.

A: Nonetheless I like your point. Why not represent reaches of reality abstractly which cannot be captured via conventional imagery? Why not describe reaches of reality paradoxically when consistent language fails?

B: But your statement of the paradox begs an important question. The paradox arises only because both contrary predicates are allegedly true of Christ. One of these predicates is "is divine." But divine is a word I fail to understand. Nor can you simply say that to be divine is to be a paradoxical entity. For the paradox arises only because Christ is supposedly already divine: his being divine is one pole of the paradox. Notice that "is human" contrasts with many predicates. Grant me that it contrasts with "is vegetable." Then to say that something is a human vegetable is to posit a paradoxical entity, as you like to say. But surely you don't believe in every possible impossibility. Hence the object of worship here is doubly obscure. Once because paradoxical. But more basically, once because divine. The predicate which must antecedently be cleared up then is "is divine." What does it mean?

A: It is learnt by ostension. Except God revealed Himself the term would not be in the language. Christ was a divine being? Jesus an individual in history. Those who saw Jesus saw a divine being, given that Christ and Jesus were identical. Fa a = b ∴ Fb.

B: But not everyone apparently saw him as such. What did they fail to sense? You call him the Son of God. But you can't teach the meaning of the term by referring back to God, for the problem gets raised all over again. Think of a kind of Prince and Pauper situation: suppose someone were a replica of Jesus, only of merely human provenance. The visual experience of seeing Jesus matches the visual experience of seeing his counterpart, admittedly nondivine. Then divineness cannot be seen, for by hypothesis the visual experiences are identical. But then suppose this were the case for each sense modality. How then is divinity to be sensed and "is divine" learnt?

A: Divinity is sensed by the eye of faith. "The numinous cannot be 'taught.' It has to be awakened from the spirit."8

B: Ah, I thought we were going to get a behavioral criterion. I thought you were going to tell me Christ performed miracles but His replica could not.

A: The miracles were signs and portents of His divinity, toward which they pointed. But how should we really understand what we being pointed to only by means of signposts? No, they may have helped cause men to be awakened to divineness. But they were not the object of the awareness. "Is divine" is primitive. It cannot be explicitly defined, and hence cannot be eliminated in favor of the garden variety of observational terms.

B: Could it not perhaps be reduced? Let N be a numinous predicate. And F and G observational predicates. Then we could say that if a is F, then a is N if and only if a is G.

A: You know as well as I that this doesn't eliminate N. You might just as well regard it as primitive.

B: Still, we would have a decisive test for numinosity if we could decide upon F and G.

A: We would not. If you put something claimed to be soluble in water which fails to dissolve, then this decisively tells against its being soluble in water. But here it very much would depend upon who was performing the test. You, lacking grace, might get a negative result. But the argument is silly. Numinosity is a manifest property.

B: I could get a decisive test providing N were allegedly manifest to somebody. I simply present him with a, and then a is N if he says it is. My only problem is to find a numinosity detector.

A: We call that trusting to authority. And for the bulk of mankind that is the best that can be done. We rely for our knowledge of the mysteries upon saints and prophets. Isn't that the gist of faith?

B: The gist of faith lies in believing that somebody knows what he is talking about. If that's what your faith is, I wish you joy. I prefer clarity. And I know that I haven't a clue as to what divinity means. For me there is a disposition on the part of certain entities to elicit "N" from those specially disposed to respond religiously to those entities. But "N" as yet means nothing more to me than that. How, for instance, am I to know whether or not they speak the truth when they say "N"?

A: Aren't you being rash in supposing them to be making an assertion, true or false, to begin with? It may simply be a kind of ejaculation, a wince upon being struck by holiness. Or better -- it may be a contingent fact that they respond verbally at all. Instead they could fall prostrate. Or jump. Or clap their hands. And you, in their place, would perhaps not respond at all. Merely peer in puzzlement at their odd behavior or notice nothing out of the ordinary were they not present and reacting. That is, you would be lost and anaesthetic.

B: But could these inspired men not tell me afterward what they saw ("saw") when the reaction occurred?

A: That's just it. They try. But it is hard for them, and the words come out sounding paradoxical. For this reason I neglected to take up your point about canonical inconsistencies. Consider: "Grasping without hands, hasting without feet, he sees without eyes, he hears without ears."10 It is the Self which is here referred to: "smaller than small, greater than great." The writer is not trying to be obscure. But this is the only way he can capture in words a concept which strains the rules of usage.

B: But what really does he tell me? Suppose I am told of a new theological discovery, namely that Brahma wears a hat. And then I am told that it is a divine hat and worn infinitely, since Brahma has neither head nor shape. In what sense then is a hat being worn? Why use these words? I am told that God exists but in a "different sense" of exists. Then if he doesn't exist (in the plain sense) why use that word? Or that God loves us -- but in a wholly special sense of love. Or God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. But this is then to have neither a center nor a circumference, and hence not to be a circle. One half of the description cancels out the other half. And what is left over but just noise?

A: But we after all speak in such wise even in normal circumstances. A man's wife dies after a long and painful illness. He says he is happy and unhappy at once. Does he contradict himself? I should think not. Or someone says he loves someone and he doesn't. Or that he can and he can't do something. Or that something is and isn't F. The conjuncts go together and don't cancel each other out. In a way, Cusanus's "definition" is a sophisticated stammer before the ineffable. The religious man's imagination is exercised in saying, by means of such expressions, what cannot otherwise be said. For the object of his discourse cuts across what in ordinary experience are mutually exclusive categories. And hence is paradoxical.

B: I call that misplaced concreteness. Language may be paradoxical, but not the world.

A: On the contrary. The language is clear -- providing we understand the mode of utterance appropriate here. It clearly depicts a mystery. And tries to draw our attention to the mysteriousness. That is the main use of religious language.

B: The issue between us looks clear now. But I cannot accept your analysis.

A: Only because of your faith that there are no dark spots.

B: But this is surely not a religious faith if you are right. For a religious faith is based upon believing in dark spots. That rules me out.

A: I should think it a dark spot indeed if the universe were such that it contained no dark spots. What a miracle it would be if the universe were comprehensible to reason! We are of one mind after all, you and I.

B: We are not.


Notes

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All too Human, I.

2 Albert Einstein, "Science, Philosophy, and Religion," reprinted in Phillip P. Wiener (ed.), Readings in Philosophy of Science (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), p. 605.

3 John Wilson, Language and Christian Belief (London: The Mac-millan Company, 1958), p. 64.

4 This point was made at the conference by Professor Sidney Mor-genbesser.

5 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: The Macmillan Company), 271.

6 The argument here is particularly directed at the position of Averroes. See especially "A Decisive Discourse on the Delineation of the Relation between Religion and Philosophy," in The Philosophy and Theology of Averroes, trans. Mohammad Jamil-ur-Rehman (Baroda: Gaiekwad's Oriental Series, 1929).

7 Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, tran. by Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946), 294 ff.

8 Soren Kierkegaard, Journals, p. 633. Cited by S. R. Hopper in his essay, "Paradox" in Handbook of Christian Theology (New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1958), p. 262.

9 Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. J. W. Harvey (London: Cumberlege, 1950), p. 67. Cited in Ninian Smart, Reasons and Faiths (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), p. 27. Smart's book ought to be quite widely read, not least of all because of his use of Oriental materials.

10 Svetasvatara Upanishad, III, 19. trans. Max Müller, in Nicol Macnicol (ed.), Hindu Scriptures (Everyman's Library).