Life Is Commitment
by J.H. Oldham


The present human situation is determined and dominated by two main influences. The first is the rise of modern science and the growth of technology. The other is the resolve of man to use his increasing knowledge and technical skill to shape his environment, his society, and himself and to control his own destiny.

Professor Herbert Butterfield declares that the scientific revolution "outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom. ... The seventeenth century, indeed, did not merely bring a new factor into history, in the way we often assume – one that must just be added, so to speak, to the other permanent factors. The new factor immediately began to elbow at the other ones, pushing them out of their places – and, indeed, began immediately to seek control of the rest, as the apostles of the new movement had declared their intention of doing from the very start. The result ... was a civilization that could cut itself away from the Graeco-Roman heritage in general, away from Christianity itself – only too confident in its power to exist independent of anything of the kind. We know now that what was emerging toward the end of the seventeenth century was a civilization exhilaratingly new perhaps, but strange as Nineveh and Babylon. That is why, since the rise of Christianity, there is no landmark in history that is worthy to be compared with this." 1

In a Radford Mather lecture Sir Lawrence Bragg said: "How does the advance of science rate as an event in the history of mankind? I accept the view so frequently expressed by students of social problems that it is one of the major events which at long intervals quite transform the whole nature of human life. ... The discovery of the scientific method, and the vastly increased power to penetrate the secrets of nature and the control over its forces which have risen directly or indirectly from the advance of science, comprise an event comparable in importance to the change from a hunting or pastoral to an agricultural way of life. ... What we are witnessing at present is the start of a new era, a mysterious unknown 'x' which will bear in importance the same relation to civilization that civilization bears to barbarism."

What we are concerned with at the moment is not the conclusions of science and their bearing on religion, but the fact of science as a historical phenomenon, representing a change in human mentality, a new attitude to life.

It is clear that Christianity must come to terms with the picture of the world and of man that is taking shape through the discoveries of science. The scientific view of the world is transmitted to each generation through education, the press, and broadcasting. If Christian belief seems to be at variance with what men believe to be the fundamental nature of reality they cannot receive it. Professor Karl Heim of Tübingen devotes the last three of six volumes on The Christian Faith and Modern Thought to the question of the relation between the Christian belief in God and natural science. A distinguished physicist, Dr. Pascual Jordan, wrote about the first 2 of these volumes when it appeared: "At last we have a theologian who knows how to value in its full width and depth the importance and meaning of natural science in the modern world. It will be a crucial test of the capacity of the Church to come effectively to terms with the problems and tasks of our age how far it proves itself able to absorb and develop the profound ideas of this moving book."

Heim sees that behind all the questions which may be asked about the meaning of Christianity there lies a radical question. The Bible was written, the Fathers of the Church lived, the Reformation had its beginnings in a pre-Copernican world. In those times the high religious valuation of man made good sense. No one questioned his position at the center of the cosmos as the chief work of creation. It is a very different question today whether we can any longer, in view of the immensities of space and time which science has progressively revealed, attach any significance to the life of the individual or even of the whole human race on this infinitesimal planet. Are ideals, morality, religion anything more than the slogans and weapons which men employ to aid them in the unending struggle for existence and power? Large numbers of people today believe that to be the true picture of reality and draw the quite logical conclusion that the only thing to do is to throw oneself boldly into the relentless struggle for power, to live dangerously and take what one can grasp.

If not merely the individual but humanity as a whole is no more than a diminutive speck of dust in the midst of unheeding immensities beyond the power of human imagination to grasp, it is not easy to attach any great significance to human achievements and aspirations. The future seems more likely to lie with those who conform their lives to actual reality.

It is not easy to see why mankind should continue to attach importance to religion and morality if ultimate reality takes no account of men and is unrelentingly on the side of the strong. If we are to continue to be Christians in the modern world we must have a total view of life to set over against the picture of reality which is inescapably imposed on us by the conclusions of modern science. Professor Heim seems to be entirely right in maintaining that unless that is possible, all the controversies which the different religions, churches, confessions, and schools of theology have waged with one another for centuries cease to have any real significance.

The second main factor, which governs the human situation, is men's resolve to use their scientific knowledge and technological skill to shape their own destiny. Not only has man acquired through science a power over his natural environment of which earlier generations never dreamed, but through the advances of the social sciences he is gaining new powers to remake for good or evil himself and society. Biology opens up possibilities of influencing the human embryo; and psychology, of modifying the behavior of the individual. Anthropology and sociology make it possible to construct a social environment which will foster the development of the traits and attitudes that are most desired. With the increasing control by science not only of the physical environment but of the processes of mind God makes less and less difference to practical living, and the difference between a religious and a secular interpretation of the universe becomes negligible. 3 The most serious competitor of the Christian faith in the world today is what we may describe as salvation through knowledge. It is what makes the wheels go round alike in capitalist America, in western Europe, in the communist East, and in the fermenting continents of Asia and Africa.

If Christianity is to have a meaning for men today it must make plain its attitude to this ambition to take on their own shoulders responsibility for their future. My own belief is that Christians must affirm unequivocally the rightness in itself of man's desire to assume responsibility for the direction of his life and destiny. If Christianity claims to be the bearer of a Word from God to man, that Word must be valid not only in the childhood of the race, but when man reaches the adult stage.

As scientists, teachers, technicians, administrators, and industrialists Christians are inextricably involved in the collective enterprise by which society is seeking to transform men's earthly existence. The Church has either to confess that it has nothing to say to men about the work in which they are engaged for the greater part of their waking hours, or else it must say to them: "You have been set in the world to be the partners of God in his continuing work of creation; and in what you are doing as research workers, engineers, manufacturers, workers, and public servants you are, in so far as the work is truly creative, co-operators with God. True as that is, it is only half the story. Everything that man does and achieves in changing and transforming the objective world is only one aspect of man's relation to reality." The collective adventure on which mankind has embarked of using its accumulating know ledge to shape its destiny is of such decisive importance for its future that it is necessary to examine the ultimate beliefs on which the enterprise rests and the hopes by which it is sustained.

I can perhaps best make clear what seems to me to be the crucial issue by reference to a book by a leading physicist, Dr. C. F. von Weizsäcker. The History of Nature 4 is in the main an account of the structure of the physical universe as it is known to physical science in all its immensities of time and space. But all this vast accumulation of knowledge has its source in the mind of man. Man is part of nature; but without man there would be no knowledge of nature. Man is undoubtedly in part an object in nature and to that extent may be studied like other objects. But he is not only an object to be known but a subject who knows and who has to make decisions. "He always finds himself faced with demands made on him, demands that he must follow or reject." Our knowledge of nature and our knowledge of man are like two half circles, which need "to be joined in such a way that they combine to make a full circle, and this circle ought then to be followed round fully many times."

We do in fact experience life in two quite different ways. I experience the world as a world of objects open to my observation. That is the world with which science is concerned. But I also experience life as an inner awareness of being alive. If Newton had had a small daughter when he observed the fall of the apple, and if he had-picked it up and given it to her, his report of the occurrences would have contained no reference to her delight in eating it or to what might have been his own enjoyment in watching her. I do not mean that it would not have been possible to observe scientifically the outward expressions of their enjoyment, but no description of these would be the equivalent of what the experience meant to them. Whenever we act, our action reports itself to us in two quite different ways. We are able to observe its outward expression, and at the same time we are aware of ourselves as living persons, as free subjects, who decide and act. 5

The crucial point is that the self which knows and decides stands entirely outside the objective world. The knower cannot be known. Let me put it as strongly as possible, since everything turns on it. Outside the entire objective world with which science deals there is an essential factor in all experience, a fundamental element in reality, which is inaccessible to the methods of physical science. Science has brought into human life a respect for fact, a humility toward experience, a responsibility in judgment which we cannot rate too highly and can never surrender. It is possible, however, to have the deepest reverence for science and at the same time to believe that reality is richer, profounder, and more mysterious than all that recent centuries have revealed and that it has other meanings besides those disclosed by scientific method.

What I am speaking of is an existential truth which concerns every man, a basic attitude toward life. This is the point at which in contemporary life the paths diverge. Here lies the watershed between two fundamental attitudes which must lead, according as the one or the other prevails, to different types of civilization. You can choose to deny or to disregard the reality of the subject or self. You can hold, as many today explicitly maintain and many more unreflectingly assume, that the objective world is the only real world. But if you take that view, you have opted in favor of one of the two half circles of Professor Weizsäcker. You can no doubt give what seem to you good reasons for doing so, just as I can advance what seem to me powerful arguments for deciding in favor of the full circle. But in the last resort it is in both cases a choice, a basic decision.

Dark and menacing as the human situation is, there is ground for encouragement in the fact that in many different quarters there is a growing awareness of the necessity and importance of responsible decision. There is an increasing realization that life cannot be lived without making decisions. The stream of life which bears us along will not stay till knowledge is complete. We have to act on such knowledge as we have. Neither nature nor history can tell us what we ought to do. We have to make up our own minds, accept our responsibility, make our venture, and take the risks. "This dualism of facts and decisions is fundamental." I am told that a considerable number of younger thinkers incline today to a similar position. They recognize that after we have got all the light we can from experimental science, we have each of us to decide to what way of life we shall commit ourselves. If we are not to drift aimlessly we have to choose our pattern of life and live in accordance with it.

Among those who have done most to open my eyes to see that the real world – the world that matters most – is the world of decision, of freedom, of relations with other persons, of spiritual adventure is the Russian philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev. For him the objectified world, which is the sole concern of the majority of men, was far less real than the world of spirit. 6 Slavery meant for him subjection to the demands of the external world. To be delivered from its bondage and tyranny was his overmastering desire.

Another thinker for whom the choice is radical and decisive is M. Gabriel Marcel. No one can read his writings without becoming aware of the horror and alarm which he feels at the extent to which our world has become a technical and functional world, so that life for many people is reduced to the performance of certain functions, such as punching tickets or the daily turning out of a specified quota of work. The modern world has been engrossed with tasks of discovery and obtaining technical mastery over things, and people have become so absorbed in these processes that they have lost all awareness that there is anything beyond them. It does not even occur to them that life may have other and richer experiences to offer.

For M. Marcel, life that is subordinated to technical processes is a denial of man's true life. Life is something to be adventurously lived. The real world is for him what he calls the world of mystery. 7

The thinkers I have mentioned are, of course, representative of a much wider movement of thought which perceives that man is not simply or primarily a creature who acquires knowledge and manipulates and arranges things, but a being on whom demands are made to which he has to respond. There are some things in life – and they may be the most important things – that we cannot know by research or reflection, but only by committing ourselves. We may find ourselves confronted with a demand about which we know that if we respond to it, the gates of life remain open to us, while if we refuse it we shall be condemned to live henceforward on a lower level. To live means that we are not merely observers, investigators, technicians but that we have at times to stake our whole existence, and it is only by making these great and daring commitments that we can experience and know what life really is.

It may be that these new insights will prepare the way for a new age. We may be on the threshold of a new epoch in which there will be a powerful shift of interest to the other half circle from the one to which men's interest has in recent centuries been too much confined. It may be that discoveries will be made in that half circle as exciting as those which have been made in the other. It may be, on the other hand, that the world will plunge further and further in its present direction with consequences that may be disastrous. But it is not necessary that mankind should rush to its doom. Racial suicide will not come about automatically. If it takes place, it will be because men have chosen certain attitudes in preference to others. Our fate is in our own hands. It depends on human decisions. And in those decisions each of us has his own part, however infinitesimal, to play.

Though the fundamental choice we have been considering is not one in which Christian faith is necessarily or directly involved, its importance for our present purpose is that unless you see life in terms of the two half circles, you will not find much meaning in Christianity. The investigation and transformation of the objectified world is a field left to the exercise of man's natural reason. With it Christianity has no direct concern. It is one of the many debts which we owe to Baron von Hügel that he cleared up much confused thinking by showing convincingly in his great work, The Mystical Element in Religion, 8 that there are areas or levels in human life that have their own proper autonomy over against the religious view and are governed by their own distinctive laws with which religion has no right to interfere. Religion, he affirmed, is both everything and not everything. Christianity not only acknowledges the rights of the secular, but is specially concerned to affirm those rights. The scientist must be free to disregard religious considerations in pursuing his studies in his special field. The modern world has been right to repudiate ecclesiastical direction in secular affairs. Where Christianity takes issue with the trend of modern society is the assumption that man's relation to the objective world is the whole of life. It is only one half of the full circle of man's life. Man is more than scientist and technician, explorer and transformer. The concern of Christianity is with man as a being who exists, who acts and suffers, who has the responsibility of choice, who is exposed to fate, who sees at the end of the road death waiting for him, who needs a faith by which he can live, who can be free from anxiety only when he knows where he may place his trust.

1. Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800 (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1949), pp. viii, 174.
2. Karl Heim, Christian Faith and Natural Science (London: S.C.M. [Student Christian Movement] Press, Ltd, 1953).
3. See Barbara Wootton, Testament for Social Science (London: Allen & Unwin, 1950).
4. C. F. von Weizsäcker, The History of Nature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952).
5. See A. A. Bowman, Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, 2 vols. (London: The Macmillan Company, 1938).
6. See Dream and Reality (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950) and Slavery and Freedom.
7. Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 2 vols. (London: Harvill Press, 1950).
8. Baron Friedrich von Hügel, The Mystical Element in Religion, 2 vols. (London: J. M. Dent, 1908).


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Last revised: December 17, 2002.