Historical Relativism and Revelation

No other influence has affected twentieth century thought more deeply than the discovery of spatial and temporal relativity. The understanding that the spatio-temporal point of view of an observer enters into his knowledge of reality, so that no universal knowledge of things as they are in themselves is possible, so that all knowledge is conditioned by the standpoint of the knower, plays the same rĂ´le in our thinking that the idealistic discoveries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the evolutionary discovery of the nineteenth played in the thought of earlier generations. That this is true in natural science, particularly in physics, is generally acknowledged; but the physicist's theory of relativity is only one special instance of a far wider and perhaps more important phenomenon, just as Darwin's special theory of biological evolution was an application and development in a restricted sphere of an idea which had an earlier, origin and far wider relevance. Theology at all events is concerned with the principle of relativity as this has been demonstrated by history and sociology rather than by physics, and if it is developing into a relativistic theology this is the result not of an effort on its part to keep up with natural science or with the popular linguistic fashions of the day but rather of an attempt to adjust itself to a new self-knowledge.

Earlier idealism, whose critique of religious thought Schleiermacher found himself forced to accept, convinced theology that it could not describe its object directly as though either reason or the Scriptures gave immediate access to divine being; it could only inquire into the reality presented in the complex of psychological experience. Such self-knowledge led theology to adopt the empirical method in its dual form of critical idealism and critical realism. Theology needed to confess its limitations; it could not describe God as he is in himself but only God in human experience; yet it was able to work within those limits with an effectiveness greater if anything than it had possessed before. As a critical theology it could make its careful distinctions between essential and nonessential elements in religious experience, eliminate from consideration all that was purely private and momentary, and furnish to religious life some understanding of itself as well as principles for the guidance of experience and the elimination of error. At the same time it was found that empirical theology left as much room for faith as rationalistic theology -- in both its naturalistic and supernaturalistic forms -- had done, while the necessity of faith was no less nor greater than before.

The imperative, "Know thyself," is never completely obeyed, but our hesitant compliances do lead to ever new understandings of the limitations as well as of the possibilities of the mind. History and sociology have continued the human self-criticism which psychology began. They have taught us that we are not only beings whose intelligence is conditioned by sensation, interest and feeling and whose limited categories of understanding give limited form and structure to sense-experience, but that we are also beings whose concepts are something less than the categories of a universal reason. Critical idealists and realists knew themselves to be human selves with a specific psychological and logical equipment; their successors know themselves to be social human beings whose reason is not a common reason, alike in all human selves, but one which is qualified by inheritance from a particular society. They know that they are historical selves whose metaphysics, logic, ethics and theology, like their economics, politics and rhetoric are limited, moving and changing in time. This self-knowledge has not come easily to us; we have resisted it and continue to avoid it when we can, but the cumulative evidence of history and sociology continue to impress upon us, against our desire, the conviction that our reason is not only in space-time but that time-space is in our reason. The patterns and models we employ to understand the historical world may have had a heavenly origin, but as we know and use them they are, like ourselves, creatures of history and time; though we direct our thought to eternal and transcendent beings, it is not eternal and transcendent; though we regard the universal, the image of the universal in our mind is not a universal image.

How true this is, in such areas of inquiry as economics and politics, historical criticism has taught all but the most dogmatic devotees of doctrine to recognize. Great phrases such as "the natural rights of men," "the natural order," "the system of natural liberty," "the divine right of kings," "the law of supply and demand," and "the iron law of wages," with which rationalism in politics and economics operated, now appear to us to be neither intuitions of a pure reason, nor deductions from absolute premises, nor inductions from universal experience, but rather intuitions of historically conditioned and temporal reasons, or deductions from relative premises, or inductions from limited historical and social experience. Doubtless they refer to objective relations; doubtless too they were and largely remain useful instruments for the analysis of actual relations between men; but we discern in all such formulations elements which are thoroughly relative to historical background, to a will to believe, and to the specific interests of certain social groups.

What is true of the much abused sciences of economic and political life is no less true of those types of thought which have acquired a certain specious sanctity from their association with the temples in which men worship and with the separated, philosophic life. We note that relativism appears in ethics as it does in politics -- not only the psychological relativism with which the great schools of rational morality have always tried to come to grips but the historical relativism to which these schools are themselves subject. The great conception of duty which Kant discovered as the rational essence of universal moral experience appears to the historical view to be essence only of any practical reason which has been educated, as Kant's had been, in a society in which the Judaic-Christian tradition is predominant. We need not doubt that the categorical imperative contains a universal meaning but Kant's formulations of it are historically relative and when we, in our later historical period, attempt to reformulate the Kantian thought we also do so as historically conditioned thinkers who cannot describe the universal save from a relative point of view. If Kant's ethics must be historically understood, no less must the Utilitarianism of Bentham and John Stuart Mill be interpreted against the background of English social history. Though Bentham begins with an experience so universally human as pleasure, the place he assigns to this good, the way in which he develops his hedonic calculus, the manner in which he makes this ethics a basis for law-making, are all evidently dependent on the relative situation of an eighteenth century British reason. In like manner Epicurean hedonism is Hellenistic, being in many ways more akin to its Stoic opponent in history than to its Utilitarian successor, as the latter is more closely related to the idealism of its day than to the hedonism of other times. So also the social and historical sources of Plato's, Aristotle's and Spinoza's ethics are not less important than those of the customary moralities of non-literary peoples. Many philosophers still seek to avoid such knowledge of themselves and their enterprise; they may employ the historical or the psychological method when they criticize opposing systems of thought but wish to except their own ideas from the rule of historical relativity. To the rest of us, however, their abstractions are unintelligible save as we consciously or unconsciously share their historical and social point of view.

Metaphysics, and doubtless logic and epistemology, are as historical as ethics. In every field of philosophical enquiry the historical approach has established itself. Its employment means that men realize that they cannot understand what others are trying to communicate by words and signs unless they try first of all to occupy the same standpoint, to look in the same direction and to use the same instruments of measurement and analysis, subject to the same conditions, as those which the original observer occupies, regards and uses. Locke and the empiricists in general understood that experience provided the limits within which reason must work, but we are required in our time to recognize the further fact that the reason which operates in this restricted field is itself limited by its historical and social character.

It is not enough to say that men live in time and must conceive all things as temporal and historical. Doubtless it is true that all reality has become temporal for us. But our historical relativism affirms the historicity of the subject even more than that of the object; man, it points out, is not only in time but time is in man. Moreover and more significantly, the time that is in man is not abstract but particular and concrete; it is not a general category of time but rather the time of a definite society with distinct language, economic and political relations, religious faith and social organization. How such particular historical time works in man has been indicated more precisely in connection with economic history than with any other. The hypothesis of Marx and Engels in its extremer form is overstated but its critical application by careful scholars to social history has yielded results which no one who takes human self-knowledge seriously can easily discount. The point of such Marxian analysis is that men are deeply influenced in all their thinking and acting, not simply by the fact that they are economic men with the common human desire for temporal goods, but rather men living amid certain, definite economic relations, who think as pastoral, agricultural, industrial, or bourgeois men. In similar fashion the philosophy and sociology of language indicate how time is in man. They are beginning to make clear what has been known in part since the ways of right thought were called logical -- that word and idea are inseparable, that language conditions thought. But language is always particular and historical, never general and static. Without a universal language there can be no universal thought, though every particular language expresses ideas about universals.

Theologians have probably been reminded even more frequently and effectively than economists, political scientists and philosophers, of the relativity of their point of view. If they were Biblical theologians, who made the Bible not only the object of their inquiry but also sought to take the Biblical standpoint, they discovered that the latter was historically and socially conditioned. They found that an interpretation of the words of Jesus made from the historical standpoint of nineteenth century liberal thought could not be fair to the content of his message; but to take their standpoint in the first century and to think with Jesus was to think also as historically conditioned beings with Rabbinic, prophetic and apocalyptic ideas in mind. If the theologian was a rationalist, relying on the dogmas of common sense, he learned that the latter is exactly what the phrase indicates -- the sense of a community -- and that every community is a particular think, the product of its own past and the possessor of a limited culture. Just as the great truths of political and economic rationalism are now recognized to be infected with historicity and relativity so the great innate ideas of religious rationalism are known to be innate in men of a certain historical culture rather than in men in general. It was said of a German philosopher of religion that he regarded as innate truths of reason all the ideas he had learned before he was five years old; the statement is more or less applicable to all men. Rationalism always works with ideas that it takes for granted, but what is granted to it comes through an historical medium. If the theologian was an empiricist who used a particular scheme of categories or a particular value-scale for the analysis of religious experience, as a scientist uses mathematics, he was reminded that categorical schemes and value-scales have a history, as mathematical systems have, or that they are dependent on intuitions which are those of historical, temporal men. Whether they are also the schemes and scales of a universal reason cannot be determined by reference to their apparent innateness, clarity or inescapability, since the ideas commonly accepted in a society always appear to its members to be self-evident and inevitable. Finally, the creedal theologians, who began with the dogmas of the church, found themselves in like condemnation with their fellows, since the historical origin of the creeds and the historical background of the creeds' interpreters could not be ignored. There does not seem then to be any apparent possibility of escape from the dilemma of historical relativism for any type of theology. The historical point of view of the observer must be taken into consideration in every case since no observer can get out of history into a realm beyond time-space; if reason is to operate at all it must be content to work as an historical reason.

In this situation many old and new temptations arise. As reason confined to experience seemed to lose all confidence in itself with Hume, so a skeptical historical relativism today proclaims the unreliability of all thought conditioned by historical and social background. On the other hand, as subjective idealism sought to overcome the limitations which empiricism had brought to light by exalting the subjective as alone real, so national, racial and ecclesiastical relativism proclaims that only the thought and experience of a particular historical group is true and dependable. Our social solipsism -- expressed in practice even more than in theory -- is the modern counterpart of individualistic subjectivism. With these dangers confronting thought, it is not strange that men today seek to avoid the problem by damning historical relativism itself as an aberration. In the earlier period, however, despite the flamboyancy of skeptical despair and the imperial exuberance of subjectivism, the work of reason was carried on by those refused to retreat to pre-empirical positions while yielding neither to the temptation of rational suicide in skepticism or of egoistic totalitarianism. Critical philosophy and critical theology accepted the limitations imposed on the rational subject by a new self-knowledge and undertook the apparently humble task of criticizing, interpreting and guiding experience with the aid of limited principles. So in our time the recognition of reason's historical limitations can be for theology in particular, as for the social sciences in general, the prelude to faithful critical work in history and in historically apprehended experience.

A critical historical theology cannot, to be sure, prescribe what form religious life must take in all places and all times beyond the limits of its own historical system. But it can seek within the history of which it is a part for an intelligible pattern; it can undertake to analyze the reason which is in that history and to assist those who participate in this historical life to disregard in their thinking and practice all that is secondary and not in conformity with the central ideas and patterns of the historical movement. Such theology can attempt to state the grammar, not of a universal religious language, but of a particular language, in order that those who use it may be kept in true communication with each other and with the realities to which the language refers. It may try to develop a method applicable not to all religions but to the particular faith to which its historical point of view is relevant. Such theology in the Christian church cannot, it is evident, be an offensive or defensive enterprise which undertakes to prove the superiority of Christian faith to all other faiths; but it can be a confessional theology which carries on the work of self-criticism and self-knowledge in the church.

More than this is required of and possible to a theology of historical relativism. Relativism does not imply subjectivism and skepticism. It is not evident that the man who is forced to confess that his view of things is conditioned by the standpoint he occupies must doubt the reality of what he sees. It is not apparent that one who knows that his concepts are not universal must also doubt that they are concepts of the universal, or that one who understands how all his experience is historically mediated must believe that nothing is mediated through history. The recognition of man's natural equality in the eighteenth century was not the recognition of an untruth because the way in which relations between men were apprehended and expressed was relative to the historical standpoint of the time. So long as we occupy the same general standpoint, that is so long as we participate in the same historical process in which the early democrats participated, we shall be able to look at the same aspect of the universal which they saw and to conceive and express what we see in terms something like their own. It is not filial piety which convinces us of the truth of their statement and it is not superior intelligence which convinces racialists of our time that natural equality is a myth. Conviction of the truth in the idea of human equality grows out of a communication with reality as it is visible from the point of view of our common social history. It is true that we cannot see this relation between men if we take the standpoint of ancient Greek civilization or that of modern racialism; from such points of view we shall see only differences and inequalities; but what we see from the democratic point of view is really there, even though all men do not see it and even though our way of expressing it is not a universal way.

The acceptance of the reality of what we see in psychological and historically conditioned experience is always something of an act of faith; but such faith is inevitable and justifies itself or is justified by its fruits. A critical idealism is always accompanied, openly or disguised, by a critical realism which accepts on faith the independent reality of what is mediated through sense, though it discriminates between uninterpreted and unintelligible impressions and verifiable, constant, intelligible content. As an empirical science operates with animal faith in the reality of the objects which it searches out and mates its doubts of impressionistic experience with confidence in the objectivity of experience's core, so an historical relativism can and must proceed with faith in the midst of all its criticism of historical subjects and objects mediated through history. If we are confined by our situation to the knowledge of God which is possible to those who live in Christian history we are not thereby confined to a knowledge of Christian history but in faith can think with Christianity about God, and in Christianity have experience of the being who is the beginning and the end of this historic faith.

Furthermore historic faith, directed toward a reality which appears in our history and which is apprehended by historic beings, is not private and subjective, without possibility of verification. To be in history is to be in society, though in a particular society. Every view of the universal from the finite standpoint of the individual in such a society is subject to the test of experience on the part of companions who look from the same standpoint in the same direction as well as to the test of consistency with the principles and concepts that have grown out of past experience in the same community. A theology which undertakes the limited work of understanding and criticizing within Christian history the thought and action of the church is also a theology which is dependent on the church for the constant test of its critical work. Being in social history it cannot be a personal and private theology nor can it live in some non-churchly sphere of political or cultural history; its home is the church; its language is the language of the church; and with the church it is directed toward the universal from which the church knows itself to derive its being and to which it points in all its faith and works.

Finally, historical relativism also means relevance to history. Empiricism limited reason to experience but it also showed the relevance of reason to experience and led to the rationalization of experience. So historical relativism, acknowledging the limitation of religious reason to history, can cherish the hope that work in the limited sphere may issue in better intellectual and practical organization of the historical, social life of Christianity.

Theology, then, must begin in Christian history and with Christian history because it has no other choice; in this sense it is forced to begin with revelation, meaning by that word simply historic faith. But such a limited beginning is a true beginning and not the end of inquiry; it is a point of view and not the eclipse of a once illuminated scene. When a theology that has been convinced of its historical relativism speaks of revelation it means not only that in religion, as in other affairs, men are historically conditioned but also that to the limited point of view of historic Christian faith a reality discloses itself which invites all the trust and devotion of finite, temporal men. Such a theology of revelation is objectively relativistic, proceeding with confidence in the independent reality of what is seen, though recognizing that its assertions about that reality are meaningful only to those who look upon it from the same standpoint.

This is the first reason why the question about the meaning of revelation has become important in our time. To speak of revelation now is not to retreat to modes of thought established in earlier generations but to endeavor to deal faithfully with the problem set for Christians in our time by the knowledge of our historical relativity.

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