Belief and Unbelief: A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge
The Christian Intellectual
They Call Us Dead Men
What shall I do to be saved? All men can give a sense to the question that made Bunyan’s pilgrim forsake his family and his city for a journey the end of which could be believed in and hoped for, not known. It would be a mistake, sometimes a terrible one, to conceive of salvation on the analogy of a piece of candy given to a child for good behavior. Certainly, good behavior deserves a piece of candy and we find it a deficiency in the world that candy is distributed to or withdrawn from the just and the unjust without regard for merit. But the question of salvation arises seriously when a man is faced with a decision that has nothing to do with the calculation of advantages and disadvantages in the ordinary sense, for what matters is what a man makes of himself apart from all calculation. Of course, we can wonder if there could be such a decision, for we have the feeling that only if the world has a certain character, so that decisions of this kind can be given a sense and a description, can we dare to think there are such decisions: and, in consequence, that there is something we have to do if we are to be “saved.” That the world might not have such a character is a mere speculative possibility, for to maintain this would be to maintain that the descriptions “being a scoundrel” and “being a hero,” “hating the goddamned niggers” and “having compassion on the multitude” were in effect equivalent. To deny that salvation has a sense and is a possibility is an academic pose.
What content we give to the notion of salvation depends not only on a feeling, hard to analyze, that the world must have a certain character, a character, as it were, of such a kind that it sustains the decision made apart from all calculation, but also on those beliefs of which a crisper account can be given. These beliefs are in a loose sense all of them religious, for even Marxism makes unconditional demands and has an eschatology. Often, in our culture, they are still Christian, though it is perhaps a mark of our period that highly educated men are less and less disposed to take Christian belief (or any other religious belief) seriously. Christians would not necessarily find this a difficulty, for they have been warned by Saint Paul that their faith would appear foolish to “the Greeks.” But for a variety of reasons, literary and historical, few educated men are without a vestigial interest in Christian belief, as having at least the bitter-sweet flavor of a lost childhood or the plausible logic of a dream. Consequently, anyone may find some interest in Dr. Pelikan’s account of how he as a theologian in the Lutheran tradition sees the situation of the Christian intellectual; in Mr. Novak’s philosophical inquiry into belief; and in Father Berrigan’s exposition of what, in terms of conduct, Christian…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.