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Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion by Harry Emerson Fosdick


Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the most eminent and often controversial of the preachers of the first half of the twentieth century. Published by Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1961, copyright by Harry Emerson Fosdick. This material pepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 1: How Fares Goodness without God?


Dear Mr. Brown:

In reply to your letter let me say first that I am especially interested in what you write because, in spite of the so-called "religious boom" now widely advertised, your statements represent a not uncommon attitude. You are going to give up religion. You find the idea of a good God, revealed in Jesus Christ, intellectually indigestible in the face of the staggering mystery of this vast universe. The new space age is making the cosmos more mysterious than ever, so that you would agree, I take it, with Charles Darwinís remark that all our knowledge "is something like an old henís knowledge of a forty-acre field, in one corner of which she happens to be scratching." You have tried to retain your Christian faith but the insoluble mystery of life in this huge and often dreadful universe has swamped it.

You propose to live a good life, to be a decent character and a useful citizen. That is to say, you are planning to be what is technically called a "nontheistic humanist." No more religion for me, you say; I will live by the golden rule, and that is enough. Since you are in college I suspect that some of your professors have encouraged this attitude, and I appreciate the honor you do me in asking for my advice.

I, too, am fairly stunned by the mystery of this universe. Some people seem to think that science is clearing up the mystery, but a cosmos in which we are told that it would take 250,000 years to count the atoms in a pinhead has not been noticeably simplified. And when one turns from pinheads to stars, what meaningful explanation can one hope to find for those unimaginable distances? You are right about the unfathomable mystery of the universe. And then man appears -- this "forked Radish with a head fantastically carved" -- and makes the puzzling enigma all the more difficult to explain. No wonder a Negro preacher bewailed his failure to "unscrew the unscrutable!"

So you propose to give up religion -- faith in mind behind the universe, purpose running through it, worth-while destiny ahead of it, with man not an accident of the dust but a child of the Eternal Spirit -- and to content yourself simply with goodness. Friend, havenít you forgotten something: that goodness is the most mysterious thing in this mysterious universe? How on earth did that ever get here? Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote a long paragraph about the strange riddle of human life. He began by exclaiming, "What a monstrous spectre is this man," and then went on to describe the weird, uncanny aspects of our existence, but when he came to his climax, to the most incredible thing in manís experience, he wrote this:

To touch the heart of his mystery, we find in him one thought, strange to the point of lunacy: the thought of duty; the thought of something owing to himself, to his neighbor, to his God; an ideal of decency, to which he would rise if it were possible; a limit of shame, below which, if it were possible, he will not stoop.

Well, isnít Stevenson right? When one turns away from religion to goodness, far from escaping mystery, one confronts the most mysterious factor in human experience.

I can imagine some ministers saying, in answer to your letter, that you are wrong because no one can be good unless he is first of all religious. I am not saying that. I am saying that when you face genuine goodness, whether in a believer or an unbeliever, you run headlong into lifeís deepest mystery and into all the basic questions of religion. Beauty and integrity of character, Dr. Schweitzerís self-sacrificial dedication, Helen Kellerís indomitable courage, supremely the life and quality and influence of Jesus -- that is not simple. Or, even in us ordinary mortals, the sense of duty which made Mark Twainís Huckleberry Finn say that conscience "takes up more room than all the rest of a personís insides" -- that is not simple. That demands an explanation, and in the long run, if you really think it through, you have to choose between two explanations.

One is that goodness is an accident in a material universe with no mind behind it, no purpose running through it, and with nothing to account for it except protons and neutrons going it blind -- the cosmos itself a "gigantic accident consequent upon an infinite succession of happy flukes." The other explanation is that goodness is not an accident, but a revelation, a disclosure of something everlastingly so, light from a central sun, living water from an eternal fountain. As the New Testament puts it: "He who does good is of God."

That first explanation seems to me incredible. A magician may get rabbits out of a hat, but no magician can ever get a character like Christ from the mere fortuitous play of atoms, any more than he can toss type into the air and have it fall by physical gravitation into the score of Handelís Messiah. It takes more than physical accident to produce integrity of character, fidelity in friendship, sacrifice in service, courage and sportsmanship in difficulty, genuine goodness rising at times to great heights of moral heroism.

When, therefore, you write me that you are giving up God and are going to content yourself with goodness, I am sure that you are oversimplifying the matter. You still have the universe on your hands. You still face the question that will not down: Is a good life the chance product of a merely physical cosmos or is it a revelation of the Eternal?

I wish I knew more than your letter tells me about why you are getting rid of your religion. There is plenty of intellectually and morally bad religion that you may well get rid of. I am told that Gandhi was once asked to name the greatest enemy Christ faces in the modern world, and after a momentís pause he answered, "Christianity." That is rather rough, but we Christians would do well to face up to the truth in it. It may be that religious faith has been presented to you in terms that have insulted your intelligence and disgusted your conscience. All right! Get rid of that! But if you are going out for a good character, remember that goodness -- Christís, for example -- raises the basic question in oneís philosophy of life: Is goodness an accident or a revelation? On one side you have Tolstoi saying, "Where love is, there God is also"; and on the other side is Joseph Wood Krutch, one of the finest nontheistic humanists of our time, who, seeing in goodness no revelation of the Eternal, says about man, "There is no reason to suppose that his own life has any more meaning than the life of the humblest insect that crawls from one annihilation to another." I hope that in the end you will find yourself on Tolstoiís side.

You are a young man and I am now in my eighties. You write about living the good life as though you could blow on your hands and do it. That is not my experience. Let me tell you some aspects of the good life that do not seem to me at all simple.

A good life involves a constant and sometimes devastating struggle against temptation. In France during the First World War a young American officer came to me with this account of his problem. "At home," he said, "I had never visited a brothel, but here in France with my fellow officers I have gone twice to look on. The first time I hated it; the second time I tolerated it; and I know that were I to go again I would participate in it, and so, before I went, I thought I would have a talk with you." The good life simple and easy? Read the newspapers and see! Or indulge in a little introspection and watch this strange spectacle of evil, inviting you, alluring you, while over against it a haunting, protesting good stands athwart your desire to let yourself go.

Right living in this kind of world is a challenging affair. It costs self-discipline, self-sacrifice, self-control, courage to refuse conformity and to stand up against popular wrongs. During the Civil War a Yankee commodore was put in charge of a blockade on the Mississippi, with strict orders to allow no cotton to pass down the river. Some speculators tried to release their cotton by bribing the commodore. They visited him at his headquarters and promised him a price to let two barges through. Without looking up from his desk he refused. They raised the price and he answered with a sharp "No!" Then they raised it again, making the bribe a large one, and the commodore leaped from his chair, seized his tempter by the collar and threw him out the door. "Out with you!" he shouted. "You are getting too near my price!"

I do not know what your moral problems are, but I am sure that you have a lot of them, like all the rest of us, and that sometimes your tempters get too near your price. For myself I am thankful that, in trying to live a good life, I do not have to picture myself in a universe with no intelligence behind it, no purpose running through it, no ultimate meaning in it, no available resources of eternal goodness to back me up.

To go further, goodness is not only a matter of right action but of bravely enduring and surmounting trouble. Abraham Lincolnís greatness of character came out when catastrophe faced him, when he was steady in a shaken time, magnanimous in a vindictive time, when the worse the situation became the more of a man he proved himself to be. One way or another it is true with all of us that the ultimate test of character comes when trouble comes, when some battering shock befalls us and the question presented to our goodness is not so much whether we will do a right deed as whether we can stand up with integrity of soul under what life does to us.

You seem to think of Christís goodness in terms of his golden rule. I cannot avoid thinking of his goodness in terms of his cross. When you are as old as I am you will have seen many admirable characters, but none so moving as those who in the face of lifeís tragedy and injustice, its cruelty and pain, have revealed such greatness of soul that they have become the worldís saints and saviors. Goodness is not merely a matter of morals -- it is a matter of morale. Take Booker T. Washington, for example --"Born a slave, lived a servant, died a king." Is that simple?

That kind of goodness does not naturally lead one to say, I will drop religion and be good. At any rate, it rather drives me to seek a religion such as Professor Royce of Harvard once described: "Faith is the soulís insight or discovery of some reality that enables a man to stand anything that can happen to him in the universe."

Furthermore, goodness always involves recovery from moral failure. Sin isnít just a word; it is a stupendous fact in every life, and all of us face crises in our experience when we need to repent, to be forgiven, to be "transformed by the renewing of our minds." Jesusí story of the Prodigal Son applies, one way or another, to every one of us. That boy started by saying, "Give me" -- "Give me the share of property that falls to me" -- but when he came back from the far country, humiliated and penitent, he had changed his tune. "Make me," he said to his father, "Make me as one of your hired servants," only make me different from what I have been. Staging a comeback like that is about the toughest assignment that a man can face. It involves repentance, confession, forgiveness, restitution, reconciliation.

You see what I am trying to say. A good life is not simple -- especially when one has done something that makes a long uphill climb necessary, if one is to recover rectitude and integrity. I have seen many magnificent comebacks from moral abysses --alcoholism, vice, criminality, or what-you-will -- but I never saw one that did not involve a recovery of faith in God.

Finally a genuinely good life involves going all out for worthwhile social causes, and trying to leave this world a little better because you were born into it. Look at this world that you are about to improve with your goodness! A child in school was asked by the teacher to tell the shape of the earth, and he answered, "My father says itís in the worst shape it ever was." Certainly its racial prejudice, its insane trust in violence, its appalling criminality, its possible misuse of nuclear power to commit racial suicide, make being effectively good enough to save the world no simple matter.

Gilbert Chesterton once said that we can tell the quality of any idea by its useableness as an oath to swear by, and that the real trouble with ethics minus religion is revealed in a crisis when all that a man can say is "Oh, my goodness!" Picture this desperately needy world, with all its mountainous problems, and then picture a man going out to save it, with nothing to swear by except "Oh, my goodness!" No! That man needs more than ethics; he needs a philosophy of life that will put sense, meaning, hope, into his existence.

What makes one sure of this is the way the atheists themselves describe their outlook on manís life. Theodore Dreiser called man "a parasite infesting the epidermis of a midge among the planets." H. L. Mencken described man as "a local disease of the cosmos, a kind of pestiferous eczema." And even Bertrand Russell, one of the noblest of our nontheistic humanists, says that manís life is "a curious accident in a backwater." Are you going out to help save the world with that kind of philosophy and with nothing you can swear by except "Oh, my goodness"? Someone once said that the "simple gospel" is not so simple as some simple people think it is. I would say the same about goodness.

From the tone of your letter I am sure that you will not stop where you are. You are not the first college student to give up religion. Here is a youth who called himself an atheist. He rebelled against his inherited religion so vehemently that once when his family took him to church he made a disturbance and was publicly rebuked. Who was that youth? You never would guess, unless by chance you knew. That was Robert Browning. Not Robert Browning who afterward wrote,

I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ,
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it.

Yes, that Robert Browning.

So, I am hoping that you too will come through to a faith that will alike create and sustain the goodness you dream of.

Cordially yours,

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