The Church and Modern Life
by Washington Gladden
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Transcriber's Note: Footnotes have been renumbered and moved to the end of the book.

The Church and Modern Life


Washington Gladden



"The time is come," said a New Testament prophet, "for judgment to begin at the house of God." Perhaps that time ought never to pass, but if, in any measure, the criticism of the church has of late been suspended, it is certainly reopened now, in good earnest. Nor is this criticism confined to outsiders; the church is forced to listen in these days to caustic censures from those who speak from within the fold.

That such self-criticism is needed these chapters will not deny. That the church is passing through a critical period must be conceded. But the way of life is not obscure, and it seems almost absurd to indulge the fear that the church, which has been providentially guided through so many centuries, will fail to find it.

These pages have been written in the firm belief that the Christian church has its great work still before it, and that it only needs to free itself from its entanglements and gird itself for its testimony to become the light of the world. Something of what it needs to do to make ready for this great future, this little book tries to show.

Through all this study the thought has constantly returned to the young men and women to whom the future of the church is committed; and while the book is most likely first to fall into the hands of their pastors and teachers, the author hopes that ways will be found of conveying its message to those by whom, in the end, its truth will be made effective.

W. G.

First Congregational Church, Columbus, Ohio, December 17, 1907.


I. The Roots of Religion II. Our Religion and Other Religions III. The Social Side of Religion IV. The Business of the Church V. Is the Church Decadent? VI. The Coming Reformation VII. Social Redemption VIII. The New Evangelism IX. The New Leadership

The Church and Modern Life


The Roots of Religion

The church with which we are to deal in the pages which follow is the Christian church in the United States, comprising the entire body of Christian disciples who are organized into religious societies, and are engaged in Christian work and worship.

This church is not all included in one organization; it is made up of many different sects and denominations, some of which have very little fellowship with the rest. Among these groups are some who claim that their particular organizations are the true and only churches; that the others have no right to the name. Such is the claim of the Roman Catholic church and of the High Church Episcopalians. Their use of the word church would confine it to those of their own communions. Others would apply the term more broadly to all who profess and call themselves Christians, and who are united in promoting the teachings and principles of the Christian religion.

The church, as thus defined, has no uniform and authoritative creed, and no ruling officers or assemblies who have a right to speak for it; it is difficult, therefore, to make any definite statements about it. It is possible, nevertheless, to think of all these variously organized groups of people as belonging to one body. In some very important matters they are united. They all believe in one God, the Father Almighty; they all bear the name of Christ; they all acknowledge him as Lord and Leader; they all accept the Bible as containing the truth which they profess to teach. The things in which they agree are, indeed, far more important than the things in which they differ, and it is our custom often to speak of this entire body of Christian disciples as "the church," forgetting their differences and emphasizing their essential unity. This is the meaning which will be given to "the church" in these discussions.

The church is concerned with religion. As the interest of the state is politics, of the bank finance, of the school education, so the interest of the church is religion. Religion organizes the church, and the church promotes religion.

Religion is a fact of the first magnitude. We sometimes hear ministers complaining that the people do not give it so much attention as they ought, but we shall find it true in all countries and in all the centuries that it is one of the main interests of human life. There are few subjects, probably there is no other subject, to which the human race has given so much thought as to the subject of religion. The greatest buildings which have been erected on this planet were for the service of religion; more books have been written about it than about any other theme; a large part of the world's art has had a religious impulse; many, alas! of the most destructive wars of history have been prompted by it; it has laid the foundations of great nations, our own among them, and has given form and direction to every great civilization under the sun.

It is not a churchman, or a theologian, it is Mr. John Fiske, one of the foremost scientific investigators, who has said of religion: "None can deny that it is the largest and most ubiquitous fact connected with the existence of mankind upon the earth."[1]

About the size of the fact there is no disputing, but how shall we explain it? Where did it come from?

The scientific people have puzzled their heads not a little over the question where the life on this planet came from. They cannot make up their minds to say that it came from non-living matter; and some of them have ventured a guess that the first germs might have been brought by a meteorite from some distant planet. That, however, only pushes the mystery one step further back: how did it come to be on that distant planet?

The origin of religion has furnished a similar puzzle to these investigators. There are those among them who assume that religion is an invention of crafty men who find it a means of obtaining ascendency over their fellows. That it is all imposture—the product of priestcraft—is the theory of some small philosophers. Such being the case, they expect that the progress of knowledge will cause it to disappear.

To others it seems probable that religious ideas may have originated in the phenomena of dreams. In the visions of the night those who have passed out of life reappear; this gives room for the belief that they are still in existence, and suggests that there may be another world whose inhabitants exert an important influence over the affairs of this world. According to this ghost theory, religion is all an illusion.

Such crude explanations are, however, not much credited in these days by thoughtful men. It is easy to see that the foundations of religion are deeply laid in human nature. Aristotle told a great truth, many centuries ago, when he said that man is a political animal. That is to say, there is a political instinct in him which causes him to organize political societies and make laws; he is a state builder in the same way that the beaver is a dam builder, or the oriole is a nest builder, or the bee is a comb builder.

With equal truth we may say that man is a religious animal. The impulse that causes him to worship, to trust, to pray, is as much a part of his constitution as is the homing instinct of the pigeon. This natural instinct is, however, reinforced by the operation of his reason. Feeling is deeper than thought; we are moved by many impulses before we frame any theories. But the normal human being sooner or later begins to try to explain things; his reason begins to work upon the objects that he sees and the feelings that he experiences. And it is not long before something like what Charbonnel describes must take place in every human soul:—

"Every man has within him a sense of utter dependence. His mind is irresistibly preoccupied by the idea of a Power, lost in the immensity of time and space, which, from the depths of some dark mystery, governs the world. This power, at first, seems to him to manifest itself in the phenomena of nature, whose grandeur surpasses the power or even the comprehension of mankind."[2]

Toward this unknown power, or powers, his thought reaches out, and he begins to try to explain it or them. He forms all kinds of crude and fantastic theories about these invisible forces. At first he is apt to think that there are a great many of them; it is long before he clearly understands that there can be but One Supreme. The moral quality of the being or beings whom he thus conceives is not clearly discerned by him; he is apt to think them fickle, jealous, revengeful, and cruel; most often he ascribes to them his own frailties and passions.

In some such way as this, then, religion begins. It is the response of the human nature to impressions made upon the mind and heart of man by the universe in which he lives. These impressions are not illusions, they are realities. All men experience them. Something is here in the world about us which appeals to our feelings and awakens our intellects. Being made as we are, we cannot escape this influence. It awes us, it fills us with wonder and fear and desire.

Then we try to explain it to ourselves, and in the beginning we frame a great many very imperfect explanations. Sometimes we imagine that this power is located in some tree or rock or river; sometimes it is an animal; sometimes it is supposed to exist in invisible spirits or demons; sometimes the sky or the ocean represents it, or one of the elements, like fire, is conceived to be its manifestation; sometimes the greater planets are the objects of reverence; sometimes imaginary deities are conceived and images of wood or stone are carved by which their attributes are symbolized.

These religious conceptions of the primitive races seem to us, now, as we look back upon them from the larger light of the present day, to be grotesque and unworthy; we wonder that men could ever have entertained such notions of deity, and we are sometimes inclined, because of these crudities, to dismiss the whole subject of religion as but a farrago of superstitions. But these imperfect conceptions do not discredit religion; they are rather witnesses to its reality. You might as well say that the speculations and experiments of the old alchemists prove that there is no truth in chemistry; or that the guesses of the astrologers throw doubt on the science of astronomy. The alchemists and the astrologers were searching blindly for truth which they did not find, but the truth was there; the fetish worshipers and the magicians and the idolaters were also, as Paul said, seeking after the unknown God. But they were not mistaken in the principal object of their search; what they sought was there, and the pathetic story of the long quest for God is a proof of the truth of Paul's saying, that God has made men and placed them in the world "that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us." It was not a delusion, it was a tremendous reality that they were dealing with. The fact that they but dimly conceived it does not lessen the greatness of the reality.

Not many intelligent thinkers in these days doubt the reality and the permanence of religion. Herbert Spencer did not profess to be a Christian believer; by many persons he was supposed to be an enemy of the Christian religion; yet no man has more strongly asserted the permanency and indestructibility of religion. As to the notion that religions are the product of human craft and selfishness, he says: "A candid examination of the evidence quite negatives the doctrine maintained by some that creeds are priestly inventions."[3] And again: "An unbiased consideration of its general aspects forces us to conclude that religion, everywhere present as a weft running through the warp of human history, expresses some eternal fact."[4] And again: "In Religion let us recognize the high merit that from the beginning it has dimly discerned the ultimate verity and has never ceased to insist upon it.... For its essentially valid belief, Religion has constantly done battle. Gross as were the disguises under which it at first espoused this belief, and cherishing this belief, though it still is, under disfiguring vestments, it has never ceased to maintain and defend it. It has everywhere established and propagated one or other modification of the doctrine that all things are manifestations of a power that transcends our knowledge."[5]

That religion is, in John Fiske's strong phrase, an "everlasting reality" is a fact which few respectable thinkers in these days would venture to call in question. But, as we have seen, this reality takes upon itself a great variety of forms. Looking over the world to-day, we discover many kinds of religion. Religious ideas, religious rites and ceremonies, religious customs and practices, as we gather them up and compare them, constitute a variegated collection.

Professor William James has a thick volume entitled "The Varieties of Religious Experience," in which he brings together a vast array of the documents which describe the religious feelings and impulses of persons in all lands and all ages. It is not a study of creeds or philosophies of religion, it is a study of personal religious experiences; of the fears, hopes, desires, contritions, joys, and aspirations of men and women of all lands and ages, as they have been dealing with the fact of religion.

Not only do we find many different kinds of religion existing side by side upon this planet; we also find that each of these types has been undergoing constant changes in the course of the centuries. To trace the religious development of any people from the earliest period to the present day is a most instructive study.

Take our own religion. Christianity is not an independent form of faith. Its roots run down into the Hebrew religion, whose record is in the Old Testament; and the Hebrew religion grew out of the old Semitic faiths, and these again sprang from the ancient Babylonian religions or grew alongside of them. So we are compelled to go far back for the origin of many of our own religious ideas. Jesus did not claim to be the Founder of a new religion; he claimed only to bring a better interpretation of the religion of his people. He said that he came not to destroy but to fulfill the law and the prophets. The New Testament religion is a development of the Old Testament religion. It is a wonderful growth. When we go hack to the old monuments and the old documents and trace the progress of religious beliefs and practices from the earliest days to our own, we learn many things which are well worth knowing.

The central fact of religious progress is improvement in the conception of the character of God. As the ages go by, men gradually come to think better thoughts about God. Little by little the old crude and savage notions of deity drop out of their minds, and they learn to think of him as just and faithful and kind.

The Bible shows us many signs of this progress. The earlier stories about God give him a far different character from that which appears in the later prophets. It was believed by the earlier Hebrews that God desired to have them put to death all the inhabitants of the land of Canaan when they took possession of it; and when they put to the sword not only the armed men of the land, but the women and the little children, they supposed that they were obeying the command of God. They learned better than that, after a while.

When Abraham started with Isaac for Mount Moriah, he undoubtedly thought that he should please God by putting to death his own well-beloved son; but before he had done the dreadful deed the revelation came to him that that was a terrible mistake; he saw that God was not pleased by human sacrifices. That was a great day in the history of religion. Because of that experience, Abraham was able to make his descendants believe the truth that had been given to him, and from that time onward human sacrifices probably ceased among the Hebrews. A long step had been taken toward the purification of the idea of God of one of its most degrading elements.

This superstition lingered long in other faiths; probably it survived among our own ancestors after Abraham's day. Tennyson's poem, "The Victim," is a vivid picture of human sacrifice among the Teutonic peoples:—

"A plague upon the people fell, A famine after laid them low; Then thorpe and byre arose in fire, For on them brake the sudden foe; So thick they died the people cried, 'The Gods are moved against the land.' The priest in horror about his altar To Thor and Odin lifted a hand: 'Help us from famine And plague and strife! What would you have of us? Human life? Were it our nearest, Were it our dearest,—Answer, O answer!— We give you his life.'"

The Gods seemed to say that the victim must be either the king's wife or the king's child; which it should be, was the terrible question that the king had to answer. The choice seemed to have fallen on the child, but the wife would not have it that he was the king's dearest, and she rushed to her own immolation. The poem reflects the common notion of those dark days, that the angry Gods could only be propitiated by the slaughter of those whom men loved the best. From this horrible idea the Jewish people were delivered by the insight of their great ancestor.

Dark notions about God still lingered among them, however, and the Old Testament record shows us how they slowly disappeared. Moses and Samuel were good men for their time, but the God whom they worshiped was a very different being from the God of Hosea or of the later Isaiah.

This development of the idea of God has been going on in modern times. It is not long since devout men were in the habit of saying that God's displeasure with the wickedness of cities was exhibited in the scourges of cholera and scarlet fever in which multitudes of little children were the victims. Not two hundred years ago the great majority of our Puritan ancestors were believing in a God who, for the sin of Adam, was sending millions of infants, every year, to the regions of darkness and despair. The God of Cotton Mather or of Edward Payson could hardly have lived in the same heaven with the God of Dwight Moody or Phillips Brooks.

The changes which have been taking place in our ideas about God have been mainly in the direction of a purified ethical conception of his character. We have been learning to believe, more and more, in the justice, the righteousness, the goodness of God. In the oldest times men thought him cruel and revengeful; then they began to regard him as willful and arbitrary—his justice was his determination to have his own way; his sovereignty was his egoistic purpose to do everything for his own glory. We have gradually grown away from all that, and are able now to believe what Abraham believed, that the Judge of all the earth will do right.

In the presence of a God who, I am assured, is a being of perfect righteousness, who never blames any one for what he cannot help, who never expects of any one more than he has the power to render, who means that I shall know that his treatment of me is in perfect accord with my own deepest intuition of truth and fairness and honor, I can stand up and be a man. My faith will not be the cringing submission of a slave to an absolute despot, but the willing and joyful acceptance by a free man of righteous authority.

Now it is certain that the belief of the Christian church respecting the character of God has been steadily changing, in this direction, through the Christian centuries. Enlightened Christians have been coming to believe, more and more, in a good God; and by a good God I mean not merely a good-natured God, but a just God, a true God, a fair God, a righteous God. The growth of this conviction has been purging theology of many crude and revolting dogmas.

It is a great deliverance which is wrought out for us when we are set free, in our religious thinking, from the bondage of unmoral conceptions, and are encouraged to believe that God is good. It is a great blessing to have a God to worship whom we can thoroughly respect. A tremendous strain is put upon the moral nature when men are required, by traditional influences, to pay adoration and homage to a being whose conduct, as it is represented to them, is, in some important respects, conduct which they cannot approve. All the religions, through the imperfection of human thought, have put that burden on their worshipers.

Christianity has been struggling, through all the centuries, to free itself from unworthy conceptions of the character of its Deity, and each succeeding re-statement of its doctrines removes some stain which our dim vision and halting logic had left upon his name.

What, now, has caused these changes to take place in men's thoughts about God? What influences have been at work to clarify their ideas of the unknown Reality?

From three principal sources have come the streams of light by which our religious conceptions have been purified.

The first of these is the natural world round about us. We are immersed in Nature; it touches us on every side; it addresses us through all our senses; it speaks to us every day with a thousand voices. Nature is the great teacher of the human race. She knows everything; she waits to impart her love to all who will receive it; she is very patient; her lessons are not forced upon unwilling pupils, but whosoever will may come and take of her treasure. Longfellow said of the childhood of Agassiz, that—

"Nature, the old nurse, took The child upon her knee, Saying: 'Here is a story-book Thy Father has written for thee.

"'Come, wander with me,' she said, 'Into regions yet untrod; And read what is still unread In the manuscripts of God.'"

It is not the child Agassiz alone whom Nature thus invited; to the whole human race, in its childhood, its adolescence, its maturity, she has always been saying the same thing. She has been seeking, through all the ages, to disclose to us all the mysteries of this marvelous universe. We have been slow learners; it took her a great many centuries to get the simplest truths lodged in the human mind. The cave-dweller, the savage in his teepee, were able to receive but little of what she had to give. Yet before their eyes, every day, she spread all her wonders; with infinite patience she waited for the unfolding of their powers. All the marvels of steam, of electricity, of the camera, of the telescope, the microscope, the spectroscope, the Roentgen rays,—all the facts and forces with which science deals were there, in the hand of Mother Nature, waiting to be imparted to her child from the day when he first stood upright and faced the stars.

Slowly he has been led on into a larger understanding of this wonderful universe. And what has he learned under this tuition? What are some of the great truths which have gradually impressed themselves upon his mind?

He has been made sure, for one thing, that this is a universe; that all its forces are coherent; that the same laws are in operation in every part of it. The principles of mathematics are everywhere applicable; gravitation controls all the worlds and every particle of matter in every one of them, and the spectroscope assures us that the same chemical elements which constitute our world are found in the farthest star. "On every hand," says Walker, "we are assured that the guiding principle of Science is that of the uniformity of nature."

It has also come to be understood that nature is all intelligible. Everything can be explained. This is the fundamental assumption of science. Many things have not yet been explained, but there is an explanation for everything; of that every thinker feels perfectly sure. "Fifty years ago," says Sir John Lubbock, "the Book of Nature was like some richly illuminated missal, written in an unknown tongue; of the true meaning little was known to us; indeed we scarcely realized that there was a meaning to decipher. Now glimpses of the truth are gradually revealing themselves; we perceive that there is a reason—and in many cases we know what that reason is—for every difference in form, in size, and in color, for every bone and feather, almost for every hair."[6]

This is the latest word of the latest philosophy; there is a reason for everything. As Romanes says, Nature is instinct with reason; "tap her where you will, reason oozes out at every pore."

If all things are rational and intelligible, then all things must be the product of a rational Intelligence. That conclusion seems inevitable.

But we can go further than this. It is not merely true that we can find in the world about us the signs of an Intelligence like our own, it is also true that our own intelligence has been developed by the revelation to us of this Intelligence in the world about us. "If," says Walker, "human reason is but 'the reflection in us of the universe outside of us,' then, clearly, the Reason was there, expressed in the universe, before it possibly could be reflected in us. It is our relation to the Universe that makes us rational." And again, "Apart from the Reason expressed in the Universe around him, man could never have become the rational being that he is."[7]

This, then, is the first great reason why our religion has gradually become more rational. The rationality of the universe constantly presented to our thought has developed a rationality in our thoughts about the universe. The mind, like the dyer's hand, is subdued to what it works in. The response of primitive man to the pressure of Nature upon him was a response of wonder and awe and fear; his religion was instructive, emotional; but through the long tuition of the ages, the old nurse has taught him how to use his reason; and he now finds unity where he once found strife, and order and law where once confusion and chaos reigned. His religion has become rational.

But what do we mean when we say that man's great teacher has been Nature? Nature, as we have seen, is instinct with Reason, and the Reason which is revealed in Nature is only another name for God. It is the immanent God, the Eternal Reason, who has been patiently disclosing himself to us in the world round about us, and thus cleansing our minds from the crude and superstitious conceptions with which in our ignorance and fear we had invested him.

The second of the sources from which the influences have come for the purification of religion is humanity itself.

We are told, in the Book of Genesis, that man is made in the image of God; and the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God, on which the entire teaching of Jesus rests, is but a stronger statement of the same truth. It is true that we find human nature, as yet, for the most part, in very crude conditions; its divine qualities are not clearly seen. It does not yet appear what we shall be. But we have learned, in our evolutionary studies, that no living thing ought to be judged in the earlier stages of its development; we must wait to see the perfected type before we can make up our minds about it. The eaglet just hatched does not give us the right idea of the eagle, nor does the infant in his swaddling clothes reveal to us the man. So it is with species and races; if they are undergoing a process of development, we must wait for the later stages of the process before we judge. The apple is not the crab, but the Northern Spy; the horse is not the mustang, but the Percheron or the German roadster. In estimating any living thing, you take into consideration its possibilities of development; the ideal to which it may attain must always be in sight.

In the same way when we think of man, we do not take the Patagonian as the type, but the best specimens of European or American manhood.

If, then, we are taught to believe that man is a child of God, we should be compelled to believe that it is the most perfectly developed man who most resembles God. We have some conception of the ideal man. Our conceptions are not always correct, but they are constantly improved, as we strive to realize them. And in the ideal man we see reflected the character of God. We are sure that a perfect humanity would give us the best revelation we could have of divinity. If we could see a perfect man, we could learn from him more about God than from any other source.

Most of us believe that a perfect Man appeared in this world nineteen hundred years ago; and the best that we know about God we have learned from him. More has been done by his life and teachings to purify religion of its crudities and superstitions than by all other agencies. The worst of the crudities and superstitions that still linger in our own religion are due to the fact that the people who bear his name only in part accept his teachings and very imperfectly follow his example. If we could all believe what he has told us and do what he has bidden us, our religion would soon be cleansed from its worst defilements.

The manifestation of the life of God in Jesus Christ we call The Incarnation; and it was a manifestation so much more perfect than any other that the world has seen, that we do well to put the definite article before the word. Yet it is a mistake to overlook the fact that God dwells in every good man, and manifests himself through him. And whenever, in any character, the great qualities of truth and justice and purity and courage and honor and kindness are exhibited, we see some reflection of the character of God.

In many a home the father and the mother, by their faithfulness and kindness and self-sacrifice, make it easy for the children to believe in a good God; and in every community brave and true and saintly men and women are revealing to us high qualities which we cannot help interpreting as divine. We cannot imagine that God is less just or fair or kind than these men and women are; they lift up our ideals of goodness, and they compel us to think better thoughts of him in whom all our ideals are united.

Thus it is that our humanity, as glorified by the Word made flesh, and as lifted up and sanctified by the lives of good men and women, has been a great teacher of pure religion. We have learned what to think about God and how to worship him aright by what he has shown us in the living epistles of his goodness and grace which he has sent into the world, and, above all, in that "strong Son of God" whom we call our Master.

The other source from which the influences have come by which religion has been purified, is that divine Spirit who is always in the world, and always waiting upon the threshold of every man's thought, and in the sub-conscious depths of every man's feeling, to enlighten our understanding and purify our desires. To every man he gives all that he can receive of light and power. To many his gifts are but meagre, because their capacities are small and their receptivity is limited; but there are always in the world open minds and docile tempers, to whom he imparts his larger gifts. Thus we have the order of prophets and inspired men, whose words are full of light and leading. In the Bible we have a record of the messages given by such men to the world. In that teaching, rightly interpreted, there is great power to correct the errors and cleanse away the delusions and superstitions which are apt to gather about our religion. We cannot estimate too highly the work that has been done by these sacred writings in purifying our conception of God.

It is possible, however, to treat this book in a manner so hard and literalistic that it shall become a hindrance rather than a help to the better knowledge of God. The one fact that it brings vividly before us is that fact of progress in religious knowledge which we are now considering. It shows us how men have gone steadily forward, under the leadership of the divine Spirit, leaving old conceptions behind them, and rising to larger and larger understanding of divine things. Any treatment of the Book which fails to recognize this fact—which puts all parts of the Bible on the same level of spiritual value and authority—simply ignores the central truth of the Bible and perverts its whole meaning.

The truth which we need to emphasize in our use of the Bible is the truth that the same Spirit who gave the men of the olden time their message is with us, to help us to the right understanding of it, and to give us the message for our time. Nor is his illumination confined to any guild or rank of believers; the day foretold by the prophet has surely come, when the Spirit is poured upon all flesh, and the prophetic gift may be received by all the pure in heart.

The one glorious fact of our religion—a fact but dimly realized as yet by the church—is the constant presence in the world of the Spirit of Truth. If there is anything at all in religion, this divine Spirit is ready to be the Counselor, Comforter, and Guide of every human soul. And we cannot doubt that the steadily enlarging conception of the character of God is due to his gracious ministry.

* * * * *

Such, then, are the sources from which have come that better knowledge of God which makes the religion of our time to differ from the religion of past generations. And it will be seen that these three sources are but one. It is the divine Reason and Love himself who has been revealing himself to us in the unity and order of nature, in the enlarging life of humanity, in the inspired insights and convictions of devout believers. What we are looking upon is that continuing revelation of God to the world which has been in progress from the beginning, and which will never cease until the world is full of the knowledge of God as the sea is full of water.

With this great and growing revelation the church is intrusted. Its business in the world is to take this truth about God, this new truth, this larger and fairer truth, which God himself, in the creation and through the incarnation and by the Indwelling Spirit, has been clearing up and lifting into the light, and fill modern life full of it. This is the truth which modern life needs. Religion is a permanent fact, but its forms change with advancing knowledge. There are forms of truth which are suited to the needs of modern life. God himself is always at work preparing the truth for present needs. It is the function of the church to understand this truth, and make it known in every generation.


Our Religion and Other Religions

Our religion is the Christian religion. This is the form of faith which the church in our country is organized to promote. Ours is a Christian country.

This is not by virtue of any legal establishment of Christianity, for one of the glories of our civilization is that first amendment to our national constitution, which declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Buddhists, Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsees, Jews, are just as free to exercise their respective forms of religion in this country as are the Christians. The government neither forbids nor fosters any kind of faith.

Ours is a Christian country because nearly all the people of the country are, by birth and by choice, identified with the Christian faith.

Still it is true that the freedom extended by our constitution to other forms of faith has been claimed by some of their adherents, and we have in the United States a goodly number of groups representing non-Christian creeds. Of these the Jews constitute much the largest number, there being, perhaps, six or seven hundred Jewish congregations in all parts of the country. There are also sixty or seventy Chinese temples, a few groups of Parsees and Mohammedans, a few hundred companies of Spiritualists, and a few scores of societies of Ethical Culture and Free Religion. All told there are not, probably, among the eighty millions of our people, more than a million and a half who are not either traditionally or nominally Christians.

Our contact with the Orient, on our western frontier, is likely, however, to bring us into close relations, in the near future, with other ancient forms of faith. The Christian church in modern life will be compelled to meet questions raised by the presence of Buddhists and Confucians and Mohammedans, and to prove its superiority to these religions. The study of comparative religion has had hitherto purely an academic interest for most of us; in the present century it is likely to become for millions a practical question. Many a young man and young woman will be forced to ask: "Why is the religion of my fathers a better religion than that of my Hindu associate or my Japanese classmate?" The answer, if wisely given, may be entirely satisfactory, but the question must not be treated as absurd or irrelevant. In the face of the great competitions into which it must enter, our religion must be ready to give an intelligent account of itself.

One of the first questions to be asked when we take up this inquiry is, What is the attitude of our religion toward the other religions? Perhaps it is better to put the question in a concrete form and ask, What is the attitude of the Christian people toward the people of other religions?

The answer to this question may not be as prompt and confident as we could wish. Many, people who profess and call themselves Christians are not so broad-minded or so generous hearted as they ought to be, and they are inclined to be partisans in religion as well as in art or politics; they think that all the truth and all the goodness are in the institutions with which they are allied, and that all the rest are of the evil one. But such people are not good representatives of Christianity. They never learned any such judgment from him whom they call their Master. And we may safely claim that those who have the mind of Christ are tolerant and generous toward those whose opinions or whose religious practices differ from their own. They do not forget that their Master treated with the greatest sympathy men and women whose faiths greatly differed from his own; that some of those who received his strongest testimonies to the greatness of their faith, like the Roman centurion and the Canaanitish woman, were pagans; that one of his most intimate and gracious conversations on the deep things of the Spirit was with a Samaritan woman, and that his representative hero of practical religion was a Samaritan man whose genuine goodness he placed in sharp contrast with the heathen selfishness of the priest and the Levite of his own faith. No Christian ever learned to be a bigot by sitting at the feet of Jesus Christ. And I think we may justly claim that those who have entered into the spirit of the Christian religion are always generous in their attitude toward those who worship by other forms of faith.

They cannot forget that all these people whose creeds and rites differ so greatly from their own are children of our Father, and that they can be no less dear to him than we are; and it is therefore hardly possible for them to imagine that he can have left them without some revelation of saving truth. They approach, therefore, the religious beliefs of other peoples with open minds, expecting to find in them elements of truth, and desiring to put themselves into sympathetic and cordial relations with those whose opinions differ from their own.

As has been said, not all those who are known as Christians have this tolerant temper, because there are many who are known as Christians who have but dim notions of what it means to be a Christian. It was once the prevailing assumption that all religions were divided into two classes, the true and the false; that ours was the true religion and all the others were false religions. That the heathen were the enemies of God was the common belief, and it was a grave heresy to insinuate that any of them could be saved without renouncing their false religions and accepting the true religion. This was the basis upon which the work of foreign missions was long conducted, and there are still many who bear the Christian name who have not yet reached any other conception.

But the church in modern life is learning to see this whole matter in a different light. Our best modern missionaries decline to take this attitude in dealing with men of other religions. They do not regard the heathen as outside the pale of the divine compassion; they seek for points of sympathy between their own beliefs and those of the people to whom they are sent. From no other sources have come stronger testimonies to the sympathy of religions. We must not, these veteran missionaries insist, assume that our religion is the only true religion, while all the others are false religions. We may well assume that all human forms of faith are more or less imperfect—our own as well as theirs, and invite them to a candid comparison of the differing systems. If our own is really superior, if it meets universal human needs more perfectly, we ought not to fear such a candid comparison. But we must be ready to see and approve the good that is theirs, if we wish them to accept the good that is ours.

This is not admitting that there is no difference—that one religion is as good as another; we should stultify ourselves by making any such admission. But it is a willingness to recognize truth and goodness everywhere, and to rejoice in them. And we must show that we are not afraid to take from the many truth which has been revealed to them more clearly than to us. If we believe in the universal fatherhood and the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit, we must expect to find, in every form of faith, some elements that our Christianity needs. In fact Christianity, through all its history, has been appropriating truth which it has found in the systems with which it has come in contact, and it is one of the glories of Christianity that it has the power to do this.

A great Christian scholar has just published a book entitled "The Growth of Christianity," in which he shows how this has been done. He finds that "just as Jewish morality was ennobled and beautified by the teaching of Christ and yet made an essential element of that teaching, so the philosophy of Greece, the mysticism of Asia, and the civic virtues of Rome were taken up by the Christian religion, which, while remaining Christian, was modified by their influence. This process cannot fairly be called degeneration, but growth, such growth and development as is the privilege of every truly living institution."[8]

It is true, as one critic suggests, that in taking in these foreign elements Christianity not only made some important gains, but also suffered some serious losses. Greek philosophy and Asian mysticism and Roman legalism are responsible for certain perversions of Christianity, as well as for enlargement of its content. We have great need to be careful in these assimilations; some kinds of food are rich but not easily digested. But it is, as I have said, a chief glory of Christianity that it possesses this assimilative power. It is the natural fruit of faith in the divine fatherhood. We ought to be able to believe that God has some revelations to make to us through our brethren in other lands, as well as to them through us. It is the possession of this power which fits Christianity to be the universal religion.

It has already given some striking proofs of the possession of this power. We have had, once, upon this planet, a great Parliament of Religions, in which the representatives of all the great faiths now existing in the world were gathered together for comparison of beliefs and experiences. It was, perhaps, the most important religious gathering which has ever assembled. The presiding officer, in his opening address, thus described its import:—

"If this congress shall faithfully execute the duties with which it has been charged, it will become a joy of the whole earth and stand in human history like a new Mount Zion crowned with glory and making the actual beginning of a new epoch of brotherhood and peace.

"In this congress the word 'religion' means the love and worship of God and the love and service of man. We believe the Scripture 'Of a truth God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him.' We come together in mutual confidence and respect, without the least surrender or compromise of anything which we respectively believe to be truth or duty, with the hope that mutual acquaintance and a free and sincere interchange of views on the great questions of eternal life and human conduct will be mutually beneficial.

"The religious faiths of the world have most seriously misunderstood and misjudged each other, from the use of words in meanings radically different from those which they were intended to bear, and from a disregard of the distinctions between appearances and facts, between signs and symbols and the things signified and represented. Such errors it is hoped that this congress will do much to correct and to render hereafter impossible."

Such was the purpose of this parliament, such the spirit which prompted the calling of it, and found utterance in its conferences. It was surely a notable and beautiful thing for, the adherents of these dissimilar faiths, whose ordinary attitude toward one another has always been suspicious and oppugnant, to come together in this friendly way, seeking a better understanding, and emphasizing the things that make for unity. And whose was this parliament? Which religion was it that conceived of it, and made provision for it, and set in motion the influences that drew these hostile bands into harmony? It was the Christian religion which gave us this great endeavor after unity. And it is highly improbable that such a movement would have originated in any other than a Christian country, or among the followers of any other Leader than the Man of Nazareth. It was the natural thing for the disciples of Jesus to do; and while many men of the other faiths yielded to this gracious influence, and were thus brought under the power of the bond that unites our common humanity, it is not likely that any of them would have taken the initiative in such an undertaking.

We may hope that this is not the last parliament of religions; that in the days before us such manifestations of the unity of the race will not be uncommon. And we are sure that the leaders of all such endeavors will be found among the followers of the Prince of Peace.

Here, then, we find one clear answer to the question with which we started. The Christian confessor who is confronted with the question "What reason have you for thinking that the religion of your fathers is better than any other form of faith?" may answer, first, "It is better because it cares more for the unity of the race than any other religion cares; because it believes more strongly in the essential brotherhood of all worshipers; because it teaches a larger charity for men of differing beliefs, and more perfectly realizes the sympathy of religions. It is far from being all that it ought to be, on this side of its development; many of its adherents are still full of bigotry and intolerance and Pharisaic conceit; but these are contrary to its plainest teachings, and all its progress is in the direction of larger charity for men of all religions. Already, in spite of its failures, it has shown far more of this temper than any other religion has exhibited; and when it gets rid of its own sects and schisms, and comes closer to the heart of its own Master, it will have a power of drawing the peoples together which no other religion has ever thought of exercising."

I have spoken of the fact that Christianity claims to be a universal religion. That was the expectation with which its first messengers were sent forth. They were bidden to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. There has never been any other thought among the loyal followers of Jesus than that the day is coming when every knee shall bow to him and every tongue confess him.

This expectation of universality is not shared by all the religions of the earth. Many of them are purely ethnic faiths; they grow out of the lives of the peoples who adhere to them; it does not seem to be supposed that any other peoples would care for them or know what to do with them. The old Romans had a saying, "Cujus regio, ejus religio"—which means, Every country has its own religion. The earlier Hebrews had the same idea; they thought that every people had a god of its own. Jehovah was their God; Baal was the god of the Phoenicians, and Chemosh was the god of Moab. They believed that Jehovah was a stronger God than any of these other deities, but they did not seem to doubt their existence or their potency. Even the prophet Micah says: "For all the peoples will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of Jehovah our God for ever and ever."[9] The later prophets gained the larger conception of universality; they believed that there was but one supreme God, and therefore but one religion, to the acceptance of which all mankind would at last be brought. The narrower conception of religion as a national or racial interest has, however, prevailed and still prevails among many peoples. The Hindu religion, which numbers many millions of votaries, has no expectation of becoming a world religion. Indeed, it could not well entertain any such expectation; the system of caste, on which it rests, makes it necessarily exclusive. It has no missionary impulse; its adherents are content with a good which they do not seek to share with other peoples. The same thing is true of many of the minor faiths.

Now it is manifest that religions which do not expect to be universal are not likely to exceed their own expectations. "According to your faith be it unto you" is as true of systems as of men. And none of us is likely to be strongly drawn to a faith which has really no invitation for us, no matter how stoutly it may maintain its own superiority. No religion which has only a tribal or racial significance can make any effective appeal to our credence. The note of universality must be struck by any religion which claims our suffrages.

There are certain great living religions which make this claim of universality. Judaism and Parseeism have both entertained this expectation, but the fewness of their adherents at the present time indicates that the expectation is but feebly held. The three living faiths which aspire to universal dominion are Buddhism, Mohammedanism, and Christianity.[10] Each of these hopes to possess the earth. Each of these is strong enough to enforce its claim with some measure of confidence.

Recent estimates give to Buddhism 148,000,000 of followers, to Mohammedanism 177,000,000, and to Christianity 477,000,000. Mohammedanism has been rapidly extending its sway in Africa during recent years; Buddhism is not, probably, making great gains at the present time.

If any form of religion is to become universal in the earth it would appear that it must be one of these three. If any of us wishes to exchange the religion of his fathers for another faith, his choice will be apt to lie between Buddhism and Mohammedanism. What claims to our credence and allegiance could either of them set up?

It would not, for most of us, be an easy thing to turn from the faith of our fathers to any other form of faith. The ideas and usages to which we have been accustomed all our lives are not readily exchanged for those which are wholly unfamiliar. Rites and ceremonies and customs of other religions, which may be intrinsically as reasonable and reverent as our own, strike upon our minds unpleasantly because they are unwonted. It would, therefore, be somewhat difficult for us to put ourselves into a mental attitude before either of these great religions, in which we should be able to do full justice to its claims upon our credence.

Yet if we could gain the breadth of view to which the disciples of Christ ought to attain, we should be compelled to admit that each of these great religions has rendered some important service to mankind.

What those services have been can only be hinted at in this chapter. Of Islamism, Bishop Boyd Carpenter testifies that it "has been, and still is, a great power in the world. There is much in it that is calculated to purify and elevate mankind at a certain stage of history. It has the power of redeeming the slaves of a degraded polytheism from their low groveling conception of God to conceptions which are higher; it has set an example of sobriety to the world and has shielded its followers from the drink plague which destroys the strength of nations. And, in so far as it has done this, it has performed a work which entitles it to the attention of man and no doubt has been a factor in God's education of the world."[11]

Of Buddhism even more could be said. In the words of Mr. Brace:—

"Sometime in the sixth century before Christ there appeared in Northern India one of those great personalities who in a measure draw their inspiration directly from above.... When he says, 'As a mother at the risk of her life watcheth over the life of her child, her only child, so also let every one cultivate a boundless good-will towards all beings, ... above and below and across, unobstructed, without hatred, without enmity, standing, walking, sitting, or lying, as long as he be awake let him devote himself to this state of mind; this way of living, they say, is the best in this world'—when these words come to our ears we hear something of a like voice to that which said, 'Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy-laden.' From a thousand legends and narratives we may gather that to Gotama the Enlightened (the Buddha) the barriers of human selfishness fell away. To him the miseries of the poor, the slave, the outcast, were his own; the tears which men had shed from the beginning, 'enough to fill oceans,' were as if falling from his eyes. The great pang of sorrow, piercing the heart of the race, inconsolable, unspeakable, struck to his own heart. For him the sin of the world, the unsatisfied desire, the fierce passion and hatred and lust, poisoned life, and he cared for nothing except for what would change the heart and remove this fearful mass of evil."[12]

The character of Gotama as it emerges from the reek of tradition is one of the noblest in history, and while the religion of which he was the leader has been defiled by all manner of corruptions and superstitions, it has borne much good fruit in the life of many peoples.

It would be easy to point out the radical defects in both these religions; let me rather call attention to some of the distinguishing peculiarities of our own faith.

1. The God whom Jesus has taught us to believe in, is a far nobler object of affection and trust than is ever presented to the thought of the followers of Mohammed or of Gotama. He is our Heavenly Father, infinite in his purity, his truth, his kindness, his compassion, his care for all his children.

Now it is true that the central and fundamental difference in religions is that which concerns the character of the deity. The best religion is that which worships the best god. And when we compare the Christian conception of God with the Buddhist conception or the Mohammedan conception, we cannot fail to see which is the highest and the purest.

A brilliant Japanese scholar, discussing this subject of the relative values of religions, was asked if, in any respect, the Christian religion was better than the Oriental religions, and he promptly answered: "Yes; the Christian conception of God as the Heavenly Father is higher and better than that of any Oriental religion." If that is true it settles the whole question.

It is, perhaps, inaccurate to speak of Buddhism as having any conception of God. "The very idea of a god as creating or in any way ruling the world," says one authority, "is utterly absent in the Buddhist system. God is not so much as denied, he is simply not known." Buddha taught men to be compassionate to one another, but he did not teach them to look above themselves for any divine compassion. It is true that they now venerate him, and even pray to him; for the human soul will pray,—its instinct of dependence, its craving for fellowship with something higher than itself will prevail over all theories; but this prayer must be somewhat incoherent, for the worshiper believes that Buddha has no longer any conscious or personal existence. And there is certainly no conception in his mind of any such fatherly relation with any Power above himself, who loves him and cares for him and knows how to help him, as that which Jesus has revealed to us.

The Mohammedan Deity is indeed a person, but he is a relentless, omnipotent Will. The worst phases of the old Calvinism—those which have disappeared from Christian thought—are the central ideas of the Mohammedan creed. God is represented in the Koran as fitful and revengeful, as arbitrary and despotic; he is a very different being from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2. The religion of Jesus emphasizes, as no other religion has done, "the redemptive principle in its idea of God." It does not hide the fact of moral evil as the source of all our woes, but it shows an eternal purpose in the heart of God to save man from sin, even at the cost of suffering to himself. This is the meaning of redemption; it is the salvation of men through a divine self-sacrifice. No such revelation of the love of God as this has ever been made to the world, except through the life and teachings and death of Jesus Christ. No wonder that when it is simply and clearly presented to men it wins their hearts. A Chinese woman, listening to a recital of this redemptive work of God, turned suddenly to her neighbor and said, "Didn't I tell you that there ought to be a God like that?"

We shall look in vain through the scriptures of the other religions for any such conception of the relation of God to men. Men must save themselves by their own endeavors; they must obey or they will suffer; perchance by their own suffering they may be purified: but that God should stoop to earth and stand by the side of sinning and suffering man, and save him by suffering with him, is a truth to which none of them has risen.

3. Christianity, above all other faiths, is the religion of hope. It not only kindles in our hearts the hope of overcoming the sin which is our worst enemy, but it conquers in our hearts the fear of death and opens up to us the prospect of unending and glorious future life, in the society of those most dear to us.

Mohammedanism also permits us to hope for future blessedness, albeit its representations of the life to come are not always such as to purify and elevate our thoughts. Buddhism, on the contrary, though it tells us that we may be reborn many times, assures us that each reappearance in this world will be attended with suffering and struggle; from which, if we continue to walk in the true path, striving more and more to conquer our desires, we may at length hope to be delivered; but the blessedness which comes at the end of all this struggle is simply forgetfulness: we shall lose our identity and be remerged in that fount of Being from which at first we came. Existence is the primal evil: to get rid of ourselves is what we are to strive for; salvation is our disappearance out of life, our absorption in the ocean of unconsciousness. This is the best that Buddhism has to offer us. Not many of us, I dare say, will wish to exchange for this the Christian hope.

There are many other characteristics of the Christian faith on which it would be interesting to reflect, but these three great elements are sufficient to enable us to form our judgment as to its comparative value. No religion which in these particulars is inferior can ever draw the world away from the leadership of Jesus Christ. And it ought to be clear to all who can comprehend the needs of human nature that while these other faiths, in view of the great services they have rendered to mankind, are not to be despised; and while it is probable that the world, until the end of it, will be indebted to them for contributions which they have made to our knowledge of the highest things; yet there is no good reason why any one who has been walking in the light that shines from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ should wish to turn from his way into the ways of Mohammed or Gotama.

It is not by any happy accident that Christianity is growing far more rapidly than any other form of faith, and now vastly outnumbers every other; it is not a strange thing that the lands in which it prevails are far more prosperous and far more powerful than the lands in which other religions prevail. It is winning the world. It is winning the world because its interpretation of life is a truer interpretation than any other religion has offered; because it meets and supplies the deepest wants of men more perfectly than any other religion meets and supplies them.

The great evolutionary law is at work here, as everywhere. There is a struggle for existence among religions, as among all other forms of life. The law of variation has had full play in all this realm; human nature has produced a great variety of religious ideas and forms, and natural selection is doing its work upon them. The fittest will survive. And the fittest religion will be the religion that ministers most perfectly to human needs; that makes the best and strongest men and women; that rears up the most fruitful and the most enduring civilization.

Everything visible within the horizon of our thought to-day indicates that the religion which will survive—the permanent religion, the universal religion—will be the Christian religion.

It will gather into itself the best elements out of every other form of faith, but the constructive ideas will be those which have found most perfect expression in the teachings of Jesus Christ.


The Social Side of Religion

We have found in our previous studies that religion is a central and permanent element in human nature, and that Christianity bids fair to be the permanent form of religion.

But the readers of these pages are constantly meeting with those who would admit both these statements, yet who are disposed to deny or ignore the value of the church in modern society. They believe in religion, they say; they even believe in the principles of Christianity; they may go so far as to say that they believe in Christ; but they do not believe in the church. What they seem to object to is organized religion. They appear to think that it ought to be diffused, somehow, like an atmosphere, through the community. We hear Christians talk, sometimes, about "the invisible church;" that is the only kind of church which these objectors are disposed to tolerate. Institutional religion is the special object of their distrust.

Some of the more radical among them oppose religious organizations, not because these organizations are religious, but because they have an antipathy for all forms of social organization. It does not take an open-eyed onlooker long to discover that social organizations of all kinds are infested with many evils. Social machinery is never perfect in its construction or operation. It is always getting out of gear; there is endless friction and clatter and confusion; it takes a great deal of trouble to keep it moving, and its product is often of poor quality. When men get together and try to cooeperate for any purpose, by orderly methods, they are always sure, because of the imperfection of human nature, to do a certain amount of mischief. Often their organization tends to tyranny; freedom is unduly restricted; selfish men get possession of the power accumulated in the organization, and use it for their own aggrandizement; it becomes, to a greater or less extent, an instrument of oppression. Thus government, which is normally the organization of political society for the protection of liberty and the promotion of the general welfare, sometimes becomes, as in Russia, a grinding despotism despoiling the many for the enrichment of the few. Thus, in our American politics, we have the machine, which is simply the perversion of party organization, and which in many instances has become, under the manipulation of greedy and conscienceless men, an evil of vast proportions.

Looking upon these abuses with which political organizations of all kinds are always encumbered, some men propose to abolish all forms of political organization. This is anarchism, of which there are two varieties,—the anarchism of violence, and the anarchism of non-resistance. Czolgosz represents one type and Tolstoy the other. For the anarchism of violence we can have only detestation and horror; to the anarchism which expects to abolish laws by ignoring them and suffering the consequences, we must extend a respectful toleration. Nevertheless the anarchism of Tolstoy offers us a programme which is hardly thinkable. For we are made to live and work together; and if we work together effectively we must have rules and working agreements, methods of cooeperation, and these, whatever name we may give them, will have the force of constitutions and laws. The great cooeperations, on which the welfare of society depends, involve social organization. Even if the form which this takes should be largely economic, it would have political force and significance. Man is a political animal; it is his nature to live politically; and, as Horace says, you may drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she is sure to come back. And the same weaknesses of human nature which infested the old forms of organization would be found in the new ones, unless human nature itself were regenerated.

Those who would destroy political society on account of its abuses are, therefore, guilty of the same foolishness as that of the man who burned his house to get rid of the rats. Doubtless the rats all escaped and were ready to enter, with reinforcements, into the new house as soon as it was builded.

The same reasoning applies to ecclesiastical anarchism. Those who, because of the defects of church organizations, would abolish the churches, are equally unpractical. For it is not only true, as we saw in our first chapter, that religion is a primal fact of human nature, it is equally true that religion everywhere has a social manifestation. The same impulse which moves men to worship, draws them together in their worship.

Any deep or strong emotion makes human beings congregate. Just as a flock of sheep huddle together when they are frightened, so men, when deeply moved for any cause, seek one another. As the impulse of religion is one of those by which men are most deeply moved, it always brings them together.

So long as religion keeps the form of fear it produces this result; when fear is succeeded by more grateful emotions, and men begin to have some sense of the goodness of the Power they have been blindly worshiping, then their gladness and gratitude bring them together. Religion, therefore, in all lands and ages, has been a social interest; indeed, it has been the strongest of the bonds uniting human beings. To demand a religion which should have no social expression is to fly in the face of nature, and forbid causes to bring forth their normal effects. Wherever there is religion men will be associated, and their worship and their work will be carried on under forms of social organization. Anarchism is no more thinkable or workable in religion than in politics.

If this is true of religion in general, it is eminently true of the Christian religion. The characteristic note of Christianity is its emphasis on the social relations. In this it simply exhibits what we may call its scientific temper, its tendency to keep close to the facts of life, to give the right interpretation to nature and to human nature.

A modern sociologist[13] tells us that "the sole point of view, aim and goal of Jesus, in all his teaching and by implication of all his acts, was social. The divine Father whom he proclaimed was social—a Being whose one attribute was love." When we say that "God is love," this is what we mean. He delights in Companionship, and finds his happiness in the relations which unite him with his creatures. Since his own supreme good is in these reciprocal affections and services, we cannot imagine that he could expect us to find our good in any different way. If we share our Father's nature, we must seek our happiness where he finds his. The blessedness of life must therefore be in our social relations. Such is the teaching of Jesus. Such is the essence of Christianity.

While, therefore, every religion by its very nature tends to bring men together, Christianity lifts the social impulse into the light and sanctifies and transfigures it, making it not merely a concomitant of religion but the heart of religion. The effect of this revelation was seen in all the ministry of Jesus. Whereever he went the people flocked together. "Great multitudes followed him." Into the wildernesses, up to the mountain tops, across the stormy lake, they made their way; it was a day of great congregations. It was because they wanted to be with him, of course; but when they came to him they came together, and one of the things he sought for them was that they should like to be together. That was surely a lesson that they learned of him; for as soon as he had gone they began to gravitate together. Every day they met, sometimes in the temple courts, sometimes in their own homes, for praise and prayer; every evening they partook together, in little groups, of a simple meal, in memory of him. Their religion, from the start, manifested a marked social tendency. Indeed, we might give it a stronger word, and say that, in the beginning, it was socialistic; it seemed to threaten a complete reconstruction of the industrial order. For "all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, as every man had need."[14]

Just how far this communistic experiment was carried it is difficult to say, but it is evident that the disciples felt that their religion ought to permeate and control their entire social life. And there has never since been a day when the social side of religion has not been recognized and provided for. The very impulse which is kindled in their hearts when they are brought into association with Christ, brings men together. Communion, fellowship, these are the first words they learn. It has been so from the beginning. One of the great Christians of the apostolic age admonished his converts against "forsaking the assembling of themselves together," and that admonition has always been heeded. No other religion has brought people together so constantly and in so many ways as Christianity has done. Christian people are always getting together, to pray together, to sing together, to partake together of the sacraments, to listen together to the teaching of the pulpit, to study the Bible together, to take counsel together about their work, to unite their efforts, in manifold cooeperations, for the upbuilding of the Kingdom. They have even come to believe—and they are profoundly right about it—that it is a good thing for people to come together just for the sake of being together, even when no distinctly religious business assembles them. To establish and promote pleasant and amicable social relations between human beings is a Christian thing to do. It is a sign of the progress of the Kingdom, and a preparation for it, when men and women enjoy meeting one another for no other reason than that they like to be together. It is a condition of the manifestation of the love which is the fulfilling of all law. The stranger, as many languages testify, is apt to be the enemy. The chief reason why he is dreaded and hated is that he is not known. Acquaintance allays suspicion and promotes sympathy and kindness.

Not the least of the services which Christianity has rendered to the world may be seen in what it has accomplished in bringing human beings together socially. Setting aside its purely religious function, it has done, in Europe and America, more than all other agencies put together to promote acquaintances and neighborly relations among men. It has done, as we shall see by and by, far less than it ought to have done in this direction; its failures in this department of its work have been manifold and grievous; but after all this is admitted, it must still be affirmed that it has done most of what has been done to socialize mankind, and no other institution or agency is entitled to throw stones at it because of its deficiencies.

When, therefore, those who read these chapters hear the criticisms and cavils to which I referred at the beginning, they will know how to reply to them.

When they hear an argument which assumes that the church is worse than useless because all social institutions are worse than useless, they may answer that the reasoning is unsound, because it repudiates the deepest facts of human nature; that social institutions, the church among them, are natural growths as truly as the cornfields and the forests.

When they hear any one maintaining that he believes in the principles of Christianity but not in the social organizations which embody these principles, they may well reply that the principles of Christianity naturally and inevitably embody themselves in forms of social organization; that you could no more prevent it than you could prevent light from breaking into color or spring from coming in May; that, as a matter of history, the growth of Christianity has been signalized by a marvelous development of the social sentiments and habitudes which must find expression in some kind of social cooeperation; and that, as a matter of fact, after all necessary deductions have been made, the church has been a powerful agency in developing that temper of likemindedness which makes civilized society possible.

There is still another cavil to which it may be needful to refer. It is based on the notion that religion, after all, is a purely individual affair; that it concerns only the relations between the soul and its God; that therefore public worship is not only needless but unseemly. Prayer is sometimes described as "the flight of one alone to the only One;" and it is sometimes contended that any other than private prayer is a violation of all the higher sanctities. If this were true, of course the church would be an anomaly or an imposition. And while there are not many who would urge this argument unfalteringly, some such notion as this may be found lying at the bottom of a good many minds.

The words of Jesus, in the sixth chapter of Matthew, are sometimes quoted in support of this criticism upon public worship: "And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall recompense thee."[15]

But we must learn to interpret the words of Jesus as meeting the occasion on which they were spoken; and before we base any generalizations or rules of conduct upon them, we must bring together all that he said and did which bears upon the case in hand, and try to arrive at some meaning which shall include and explain it all. When we treat the utterances and acts of Jesus after this manner, we shall find that no such deduction as that which we are considering can be drawn from them.

We discover, in the first place, that he himself did not always pray in secret; for several of his prayers made in public places are reported for us. Moreover, he told his disciples that when even two or three of them were gathered together in his name, he would be in the midst of them. The implication is that they would be in the habit of gathering together in his name, and that there would generally be many more than two or three of them.

The only form of prayer which he has left us is manifestly intended primarily, not for secret worship, but for social worship. The pronouns of the "Lord's Prayer" are all in the plural number: "Our father who art in heaven;" "Give us this day our daily bread." For solitary prayer these phrases are not suitable.

When he went away from his disciples he left them a great promise of the manifestation to them of that Spirit which had been given without measure to him; and he bade them tarry in Jerusalem until that promise should be fulfilled. Accordingly they assembled, about one hundred and twenty of them, in an upper room in Jerusalem, and "continued steadfastly" in prayer together for many days. The response to this prayer was that outpouring of the Spirit by which the apostolic church was inspired, and equipped for its work. Saint Peter told the disciples that this was the gift of the ascended Christ,—the fulfillment of his promise to them. If this was true, it can hardly be conceived that he disapproved of the common prayer in answer to which this gift had come.

Nor can any reasonable interpreter of his words and deeds imagine that he intended his admonition in the sixth chapter of Matthew to be taken as a prohibition of public worship or of social prayer. Those words were simply a reproof of ostentation in worship. The Pharisees, whose conduct he is castigating, "loved to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they might be seen of men." It was a private and personal prayer, offered in a public place, to advertise the devotion of the worshiper. With our private and personal prayers the public has no concern; it is a manifest indelicacy to thrust them before the public; the place for them is the secret chamber. Individual sins and sorrows and needs we all have, and when we talk with our Father about them we ought to be alone with him; but we have also common sins and sorrows and needs, and it is well for us to be together when we talk with him about them. It is therefore a gross perversion of these words of Jesus to quote them in condemnation of acts of public worship. His entire life and the example of all those who were nearest to him, as well as the testimony of the best Christians in all the ages, unite to render such a notion incredible.

If I have succeeded in answering the cavils which seek to discredit the church as a social organization, and especially as an agency for the maintenance of social worship, let me go on to suggest some positive reasons for the existence of such an agency.

Such an opportunity as the church offers for social worship is essential to the maintenance of religion. Religious feeling the expression of which was confined to the relations between the individual and his God, would become self-centred, egoistic, and morbid. If there were no praying but secret praying, if the social element were eliminated from prayer and praise, faith would take on ascetic forms, devotion would become rancid, sympathy would be smothered, and the character of the worshiper would be hardened and belittled. There is a place and a time, as we have seen, for private devotion; probably many of us make far less use of it than would be good for us; but any attempt to shut our religion into the closet would be suicidal. It would mould there. To keep it fresh and wholesome it must be taken out into the light and air; the winds of heaven must blow through it; our desires must mingle with the desires of others; our voices must join with their voices; we must learn to think of the needs, the struggles, the sorrows, the hopes that are common to us all, to put ourselves in other people's places when we pray, to feel that our religion is a bond that binds us to our kind.

There is a kind of prayer which we could only use in the closet,—intimate, personal, dealing with matters of which no one else has any right to know. But there is another kind of prayer for which there is no other place than the great congregation; a prayer in which many pleading hearts unite; in which the sympathies and hopes and aspirations of a thousand worshipers are blended. Such a prayer, if some one can give it voice, is something far higher and diviner than ever ascended from any secret shrine.

It is true that the prayer of the great assembly does not always find a fitting voice. It is sometimes arid and formal; it is sometimes palpably insincere and perfunctory, alas for our human disabilities and infirmities! The power of the leader to forget himself, to gather up into his heart the common needs of those who are listening, and pour them out before God, is sometimes wanting. Not seldom we may find ourselves wishing for those forms of prayer, sanctified by centuries of use, in which the Christian church, in all the lands of earth, has made known its requests to God. These are always dignified and reverent; every truly devout heart may find utterance for some of its deepest needs in the petitions of the Book of Common Prayer. But most of us have heard prayers in the sanctuary which lifted and kindled us as no written prayers could ever do. If the leader of the devotions could be "in the Spirit on the Lord's day;" if he could forget himself; if the simplicity which is in Christ could take possession of his thought, if he could look over the company round about him before he closed his eyes, and with a swift glance could glean out of that field of human experience some inkling of the trials, the perplexities, the griefs, the struggles, the tragedies of the lives there before him, and with a great, fervent, energizing[16] prayer could carry them all up to God, there would be something in that which would convince all who were listening that the highest form of prayer is not secret prayer, but social prayer. Nor is it an uncommon thing to hear, even in humble pulpits, prayer which effectually meets this great demand.

It goes without saying that, for the highest forms of praise, we must have the conspiring voices of the great congregation. We cannot let loose the hallelujahs in the closet; that would be almost as unseemly as to pray on the street corner. If the Bible is any guide as to the forms which our worship should take, praise must constitute a large part of it. And praise is mainly a social act.

Even the preaching gathers much of its impressiveness from the congregation. The message which stirs the hearts of five hundred worshipers would make much less impression upon any one of them if he heard it alone. It could not be given to him alone, as it is given to the five hundred; that is a psychological impossibility. There is something in it when the five hundred hear it that is not in it when the single auditor hears it, and that something is, far and away, the best thing that it contains.

All these considerations show that public worship is essential to the vigorous maintenance of true religion. The elements which it supplies to religion are vital elements. Let no man imagine that by reading the Bible and good books at home, and by worshiping in his closet, or, as some are fond of saying, "in God's first temples," the life of religion can be successfully maintained. It never has been maintained in that way, and it never will be. When men forsake the assembling of themselves together for worship, there is no more reading the Bible and good books at home, and no more praying in the closet, much less in the woods. Single individuals might, if the religious atmosphere of the community were kept vital round about them, continue to enjoy religion. Invalids are often forced to deprive themselves of social worship; but if they are there in spirit, something of the benefit finds them. But a community which deliberately abandoned social worship would be a community in which no private worship would long be maintained.

If, then, we agree that religion is an essential element in the life of mankind, we must see that it is necessary that some institution should exist which shall make provision for social and public worship. The Christian church undertakes primarily to fulfill this function. It has other large and important relations to society, of which we shall speak further on. But this is its first concern. I hope that it has been made evident in this discussion that it is a very important function. I hope that those who read these pages may be able to see that if we are to have any religion in our land, the kind of work which the church undertakes to do cannot be neglected. That the church is not doing this work as well as it ought to be done is true enough; we shall have all that before us presently; but the vital necessity of the work is not therefore disproved. The work would be better done if those who now hold aloof, because they see its defects, would put their lives into the business of mending them.

There are very few men and women, after all, in our modern society, who do not say, without hesitation, that we must have churches; that it would not do to let them die; that they are essential to the social welfare; that, imperfect as they are, they supply a need which every one can recognize. They have no hesitation, either, in admitting that if there are to be churches, somebody must belong to them, and share the responsibility for their maintenance. But when the question is asked, "If somebody must, why must not you?" a good many of them are not able to give a very clear answer. Very often the excuse that is set up is some form of theological dissent. But that is not, in many cases, a serious barrier. It might shut some men out of some churches; but there are great varieties of creeds, and the conditions of membership in some churches are so simple that no really earnest man is likely to feel himself excluded. If it is essential that the work of the church be done, and if the reader of these pages has not convinced himself that he is exempt from the common human obligations, then he can find, if he is in earnest, some church with which he can conscientiously ally himself, and in whose work he can bear a part.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse