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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 2: Is Christian Faith Credulity?


Dear Mr. Brown:

Your letter raises a very important question and I salute you for the able way in which you present it. You agree with my contention that in living the good life it would be inspiring and sustaining to believe in God. To have faith that love is at the heart of the universe, that the whole scheme of things is conceived in wisdom and goodwill, that a divine purpose underlies creation and makes the ultimate victory of good over evil a foregone conclusion -- that, you say, is obviously a most comforting and enheartening philosophy. But, you say, is not that the very reason why people do believe in God, because they want a comfortable faith? "I fear," you write, "that this faith which you exalt is wishful thinking. It sugar-coats this terrific universe with a lush gospel. Isnít it a psychological drug, a daydream, a tranquilizer, a soothing fantasy?" You confess that you wish you could honestly believe in God, but you say, "I donít want to be credulous and believe a myth just because it is pleasant."

Well, neither do I, and with one aspect of what you say I agree: faith in God is used by many as a psychological defense mechanism, a lovely make-believe world to which sentimentally they retreat when they do not want to face lifeís stern realities. Nothing is free from the possibility of burlesque, not even belief in God. But you do not judge music by jazz; you know there is Mozart. You do not judge architecture by filling stations; you know there is Chartres. No more should you judge religious faith by the weaklings who use it as a cozy retreat.

The idea that irreligion is hardheaded and factual while religion is visionary and wishful, is a strange misconception. Upon the contrary, the central issue between religion and irreligion concerns what we are going to do with a towering range of marvelous and significant facts. The stars in their courses are not more factual than the profound spiritual experiences that have produced the great souls of our race. The irreligionist picks up a Bible and calls the visible book a fact, but when the book tells of a man who goes into his closet, shuts the door and, having prayed to the Father, comes out transfigured and empowered, he calls that a wishful fantasy. The irreligionist calls our bodies a fact, but when our spirits are led "in green pastures" and "beside the still waters" by an invisible Shepherd who restores our souls, he calls that a consoling illusion. The irreligionist grants that Gandhi is a fact, but when Gandhi, going to prison under a sense of divine vocation, which he cannot resist, calls God "the most exacting personage in the world and the world to come," the irreligionist says that is visionary fancy. Irreligion seems to me a negation of lifeís most significant facts. Life is immeasurably more profound and meaningful than irreligion sees. Manís best life, his deep and moving experiences of beauty, goodness, truth -- they are facts. What made Plato Plato, what made Raphael Raphael, what made Christ Christ are facts. An intellect like Einsteinís is a fact and, if you say that the stars are overwhelmingly tremendous, I answer that a mind which can understand the stars and describe the universe in a mathematical formula is far more amazing than the stars, which do not even know that they are being understood.

When then a man turns to molecules and atoms alone as the ultimate realities, he is not being more factual than the man of religious faith. He is simply neglecting one range of facts to concentrate upon another. Serious religious faith takes them both into account, but it gives primacy to the higher range of facts, manís best life; and concerning that it maintains the strong conviction that man at his best has experiences, intellectual, ethical, and spiritual, which materialism never can account for, and which only religious faith is adequate to explain.

When I was a sophomore in college I cleared God out of my universe and started all over to see what I could find. I dreaded being credulous, and some of the stuff handed out to me as part and parcel of the Christian faith seemed to me -- and still seems to me -- incredible. But by disbelieving in God I did not escape belief; I ran headlong into belief in atheism, materialism, into faith that the ultimate, creative factors in the universe are physical particles operating blindly without mind behind them or purpose in them. Talk about credulity!

Recently I heard a magnificent rendering of Beethovenís Fifth Symphony. How explain that -- its composer, its thrilling beauty, its masterly rendition? On the analogy of a materialistic explanation of the universe we must first reduce all the symphonyís spiritual aspects to its physical basis printed in the score. Then we must analyze the physical basis into its notes --whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighths -- and then, having analyzed them into circles, dots, and dashes, we must reduce those to arithmetical points diffused in space. So, the explanation runs, by fortunate chance the arithmetical points fell together into whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighths, and by fortuitous concourse on some happy occasion they arranged themselves into the symphony. That seems to me a true analogy of the process of thought by which men reach a materialistic explanation of the universe and of our lives in it. Talk about credulity! As another put it, that is like ascribing Shakespeareís dramas to an accidental explosion in a printing shop.

Donít misunderstand me! There are endless baffling problems associated with belief in God. Mystery beyond mystery confronts us in any endeavor to explain this world. But of all attempts to find the source and meaning of our existence, atheistic materialism seems to me to be the most incredible. So I came back to belief in God, not in order to be happily credulous but in order to escape credulity. It was not a preacher but Charles Darwin who said, "If we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look upon it as the outcome of chance."

Another factor in your letter gives me serious concern: your concept of Christian faith as a roseate, even saccharine, view of life and your picture of Christian living as cozy and comfortable. Granted that too many Christians make such a description possible! There is today a popular "peace of mind" movement in some of our churches, which seems to me to reduce the harp of the gospel to one string -- donít get nervous -- and to play endlessly on that. Granting, however, that such a caricature of Christianity exists, it certainly is a caricature. Was the religion of Christ primarily comforting? I should call it primarily challenging, disturbing, demanding. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" -- is that kind of living a snug and soothing retreat?

Perhaps you will say that the last time you went to church they sang Whittierís hymn:

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease.

Isnít that a soft retreat? To which I answer, read Whittierís biography. He was a courageous, militant social reformer. In his elder years, famous as a poet, he wrote, "I set a higher value on my name as appended to the Anti-Slavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title page of any book." I think of him in Concord, New Hampshire, going to speak at an anti-slavery meeting, facing a crowd on the way that pelted him with rotten eggs until his black Quaker coat ran yellow with the stains. He was hated as a radical and lampooned in the press as a traitor, but he stood his ground. Now, with all that and more in mind, go back to Whittierís hymn again, and see where he got the stability and stamina to "fight the good fight."

Genuine Christian faith and life are not anything that a soft and cowardly spirit would care to retreat to. Your reference to the New Testament -- that its "idealistic faiths and beautiful ideals" seem to you far removed from lifeís "dirty and often cruel realities" -- especially interested me. Take another look at the New Testament! In what other book will you find such an ungodly company of vicious scoundrels as you find in the New Testament?

Where does Herod, wanting to kill one child, massacre all the newborn boys in the countryside so as not to miss him? In the New Testament. Where do we meet Judas Iscariot, the traitor, who for thirty pieces of silver sold to his death the fairest soul that ever visited the earth? In the New Testament. Where do we watch Caiaphas, the crafty priest, twisting judicial process to an evil end, and Pilate, who knew that Jesus was innocent, sending him out to be scourged and crucified? In the New Testament. Where does a whole cityís population, swept by mass propaganda, cry hours on end, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians," because incited by a group of greedy tradesmen who do not want their profits cut? In the New Testament. Where does religious persecution rage, killing uncounted Christian martyrs, until the survivors think they hear the souls of the slain crying from under the altar, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long?" In the New Testament. In what other book in all literature does the story start from, center around, and evermore return to a cross, where a man, "fairest among ten thousand and the one altogether beautiful," dies after six hours of agony, while his foes jeer him and his friends desert him. There isnít any such book. Are you taking Latin in college? Cicero called crucifixion "crudelissimum deterrimumque supplicium -- the most cruel and terrifying punishment." On Calvary you see it at its worst. Show me a single damnable and scrofulous evil in human nature that does not appear in the New Testament! Dishonest taxgatherers, adultery, racial prejudice, religious bigotry -- all the evils that make men cynical are in that book.

This is one reason why I am proud to be a Christian. Christian faith did not start as a retreat from lifeís ugly realities. It faced all of them and rose triumphant over them. When it is genuinely Christian it is not cozy comfort; it is "the victory that overcomes the world."

I was especially interested in your reference to Schopenhauer. I judge that in some course in philosophy you have heard of him with his atheism and pessimism. You say in your letter that when a man like that talks he sounds objective, realistic, unemotional. He is not believing anything because it is agreeable. I knew a young man once who reveled in Schopenhauer, welcoming his assertions that there is no God, that nothing is worth our striving, that life is a business which does not cover expenses, and that "the only honest wish man can have is that of absolute annihilation." There, the young man said, is clear, cold reason unaffected by emotion.

Schopenhauerís atheism unaffected by emotion? His grandmother was insane; his father, married to an unfaithful wife, committed suicide. Then his mother turned openly to free love and, like Hamlet, Schopenhauer despised her with a hatred which she vehemently returned, throwing him out of the house at last and physically pitching him downstairs. During the last twenty-four years of his motherís life, Schopenhauer never saw her. He had no wife, one illegitimate son whom he refused to acknowledge, no home life, few friends. He distrusted all mankind so deeply that he never allowed a barber to shave him, and he habitually slept with a loaded pistol beside his bed. Schopenhauerís atheism an objective, intellectual conclusion, unaffected by emotion? No! Give him a good father and mother, a devoted wife, some fine children and real friends, and see how long he will go on thinking as he did about lifeís meaninglessness.

Do you see what I am driving at? You are saying that folk often believe in God for emotional reasons, because such faith is consoling and comfortable. I am saying now that many people disbelieve in God for emotional reasons, because in their misery life feels godless and meaningless. I am sure that atheism is commonly not at all the conclusion of a clear, cool mind, unclouded by emotion.

Take, for example, one of our popular American novelists, the late Theodore Dreiser. He was a thoroughgoing atheist, calling life "a complete illusion . . . purely temporary . . . always changing . . . ever ridiculous." How did he come to accept that philosophy? His father, a cripple, never was able to lift his family of fifteen out of poverty. The home periodically broke up, and mother and children were battered about from one town to another. Even the local prostitute once sent them food and clothes. So this gifted, sensitive youth grew up, humiliated, frustrated, embittered. Then in his maturity he came upon the philosophy of atheistic materialism, which said about life just what he felt about it, that it came from nowhere, means nothing, and is going nowhither. Thus not by the intellectual but by the emotional route he came to his atheism.

Donít misunderstand me. There are happy and fortunate people who are atheists, and there are desperately handicapped people who are theists. What I am trying to do is to make clear that while some people do believe in God because such faith is emotionally satisfying, plenty of others disbelieve in God for the same reason, because atheism expresses the way they feel about lifeís emptiness. In the end I hope you will do neither, but will find a faith in God and an experience of his presence which will command the respect of the whole of you -- mind, heart, and will.

To be sure, in every realm the believers are commonly accused by the skeptics of being crazy. A friend of mine, operating in Arabia during the First World War, ran upon an Arab sheik who, hearing talk about telegraphy, was dogmatic that no message could possibly travel from Basra to Baghdad faster than his swiftest horse could run. He refused to be credulous. He was one of those shrewd, hardheaded men, not to be fooled. No one was going to pull the wool over his eyes. What he failed to see was that skepticism can be just as mistaken as credulity.

When steam-driven locomotives were first proposed for the Liverpool-Manchester Railway, learned men testified that they never could go more than twelve miles an hour, and the Edinburgh Review pleaded that Thomas Gray be put in a strait jacket because he maintained that railroads could be made practical. All the way up from such matters to philosophies about lifeís meaning, the skeptics have always derided the believers. But how often the skeptics have been mistaken!

In a generation like this, with its desperate needs and indispensable ventures of faith and endeavor, I should hate to make a fool of myself by being credulous. But I should hate even more to be found among those who have made fools of themselves through skepticism and disbelief. As for me, I bet my life that God is.

Cordially yours,

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