Religion, Art and Science: A Study of the Reflective Activities in Man

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: 1986 edition, published by The John Macmurray Society, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. First published 1961 Liverpool University Press as The Forwood Lectures 1960, 78 pp,

Four Chapters.
1. Science out of Bounds
2. Contemplation and Communion
3. The Religious Reference
4. Christianity for the Future

Macmurray thought that the lectures, of which this book is the published form, could be said to be a contribution to the ‘philosophy of religion’ if that term were not, strictly, improper — philosophy being one. The book is concerned with that corner of philosophy primarily concerned to understand religion. There are three major modes of reflective activity: science, art and religion. The book aims to provide a kind of geography of the whole field of reflection as a prerequisite for a fruitful examination of the internal structure of religion itself — of its own inner geography.

Until recently, when I acquired a Canadian edition, I was unable to obtain my own copy of this book. So the last and first time I read it was in a university college library about a quarter of a century ago, about ten years after I’d first discovered Macmurray. When people asked me about the book I was wont to reply that I couldn’t recall that there was anything in it that was not to be found in Interpreting the Universe, The Form of the Personal (2 vols.) and The Boundaries of Science. Having reread it recently (twice) I would largely stand by that opinion. Possibly, Macmurray goes into more detail about artistic reflection than he does elsewhere. However, I think a person newly interested in Macmurray would find the time reading it well spent. For one thing it is a lot shorter than the other three works taken together so the non-philosopher would find it easier not to ‘lose the thread’. And the person not good at making his own links or who hasn’t a sharp eye for the implicit might be grateful for a more structured spelling out of the Macmurrian view of the whole gamut of human reflection.

I suppose a major difference between this little book and Macmurray’s three major philosophical works listed above is that in this book he is more openly and unashamedly missionary. The book is subtitled ‘A Study of the Reflective Activities in Man’. And it is. Any professional philosopher who bought the book hoping for a significant discussion about this particular corner of philosophical interest would not be cheated. But Macmurray makes no bones about the fact that the reason he wants to make people clear about what precisely science and art are is that he wants to demonstrate what, distinctively, religion is. He wants to rid people of confusions such as thinking that art or science could be substituted for religion — could do its job; or that religion is merely a crude, primitive, childish form of science or art which we have outgrown. And he wants to demonstrate what religion essentially is so that he can establish whether the contemporary Christian church is genuinely religious. And if it isn’t, to indicate what reforms it must undergo if it is to be the vehicle for the transformation of the world necessary to usher in the worldwide communion of mankind, or the Kingdom of Heaven.

Macmurray maintains that all three modes of reflection — science, art and religion — have their reference in our everyday life in the world, where we function primarily as agents rather than as thinkers. All three are human activities rather than, primarily, bodies of knowledge. Science refers to that activity where we are concerned with the world as stuff to be manipulated, as means to our ends. Science generalises, sees things as instances of a kind and as matters of fact. It has nothing to say about value. Art refers to that activity where we take the world as matter of fact for granted but go on to contemplate it from the standpoint of its intrinsic value. Art is concerned with the exhibition of values and, in relation to action, with the choice of ends. The practical function of art is the refinement of sensibility. It is an education of emotion and a training in judgement. It cannot provide rules for the choice of ends because this is a matter of intuition and feeling, not of discursive thought. Art, in contrast to science, particularises, both the object contemplated and the contemplator.

Religion refers to those activities where we are concerned with personal relationships. A difference between religious reflection and the other two modes is that it is not itself a ‘mental’ activity in the first instance, either of thought or emotion, but a symbolic action which is communal. At the heart of religion there lies an activity of communion or fellowship. All members of the community are united in the same symbolic action, which is an expression and realisation of personal relationship. The Other to whom they are all related in a complete self-transcendence can only be an infinite person Who is at once the Father of mankind and the Creator of the world. He must be personal since he is one term in a personal relationship. He must be infinite and eternal because he must be the same for all persons at all times — the same yesterday, today and forever. And since the ordinary experience of personal relations is necessarily a unity in co-operation directed towards nature and upon nature, he must unify the natural with the personal. To ask whether God exists is to ask an unnecessary and possibly meaningless question. It is only through the confusion with science or art that the validity of religion can be doubted. Religious reflection is the most inclusive form of reflection. It contains its artistic and intellectual moments — the former giving rise to ritual, ceremonial and mysticism; and the latter to theology and philosophy. But these aren’t primary for religion. The primary experience is communion.

The Christian church, after appropriate reform, should not be merely a tribal or national church but a universal church which exists primarily not for the benefit of its members but for the benefit of the world, and which intends the creation of a total human fellowship.

A minor carp: There seemed often to be occasions in the text where “there was not time or space to elaborate”. I found myself wishing that Macmurray could have found himself an occasion when there was!