return to religion-online

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 17: How Distinguish Good from Bad Religion?


My dear Ted:

I also read that magazine article to which you refer, whose opening sentence was a quotation from Martin Luther: "There is no more sin in manís sex life than in his religious life." With his characteristic bluntness Luther stated a fact which we religious folk ought never to forget: that religion can become one of the most wicked and ruinous forces in human experience. It is like water -- it can refresh and cleanse or it can engulf and drown. Religious people are sometimes tempted vaguely to divide mankind into two groups, the religious and the irreligious, and then to assume that being religious confers a certain superior quality upon them. On second thought they must know that this is not true. Look at what religion has often done in history -- its bloody wars, its cruel persecutions, its brutal rituals of human sacrifice, its ugly superstitions, the barricades set up by religion against every advance of science. Even in my generation Voliva of Zion City in Illinois with his followers, and a Christian sect in Boston, were insisting in the name of God and the Bible that the earth is flat. And even in Tennessee today the law is on the statute books making it unlawful to teach evolution in the schools.

You ask an important question, therefore, recognizing that religion can be very bad as well as very good, and wanting me to clarify the difference between the two. Iíll do my best.

To start with, note that this was Jesusí problem. He never had to deal with irreligion. So far as we know, neither Jesus nor any of his disciples ever met an atheist. His problem was not irreligion against religion, but a high, transforming, inspiring type of religion against a low, degrading, unethical type that did people more harm than good. That is our problem too, if we had eyes to see. If we had a better quality of religion in our homes and churches, we would have a much smaller problem with irreligion outside them. What disastrous results religion can produce in human character -- bigots, fanatics, hypocrites, narrow-minded, self-opinionated, intolerant! The very word "bigot" is a condensation of "By God."

You see, religious faith, when it is in earnest, is very powerful. It persuades men that certain ways of thinking and living are the will of God. It puts into men the most comprehensive motive that humanity can be driven by, the sense of obeying the Eternal Will. But when that motive is associated with wrong things the results are disastrous. Watch Saul of Tarsus holding the clothes of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, while the crowd stones him to death. What motivated that cruel deed? His religion. See him heading in toward Damascus, "breathing threats and murder" against Christians there. What drives him on that bloody errand? His religion. See him now, years afterward, a converted and transformed character, Paul the Apostle, writing, "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." What inspires that? His religion. Can the same fountain send forth sweet water and bitter? But religion does it. For religion is life motived by ideas of Godís will. When those ideas are high and true, they save. When they are low and false, they damn.

On Calvary an unforgettable deed was done for the souls of men. What motived that matchless sacrifice? Religion. But those scribes, passing the cross and wagging their heads as they say scornfully, "He saved others; he cannot save himself" -- what motived their hatred? Their religious loyalty to ideas and customs for which Jesus had no use. Like electricity religion is ambiguous -- it may illumine and warm, or it may blast and kill.

Come at this fact from another angle. One of the most dangerous aspects of religion is that it confers sacredness upon everything it deals with. If a certain form of liturgy has been developed, that is sacred -- it must not be changed. If a certain theological idea has been accepted, that is sacred -- it must not be rethought. If religious thinking has been set in the matrix of an old cosmology, that is sacred -- it is wicked to teach that the earth moves. Perhaps worst of all, this sense of sacredness can attach itself to endless trivialities. This was Jesusí problem. He saw his people tempted to forget their great prophetic heritage: "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord. . . . Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow." That is Isaiahís appeal for an ethical religion which puts the sense of sacredness in the right place. But Jesus seeing his people, said to them, "You tithe mint, and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God." He spent his life trying to strip away the irrelevant entanglements from true religion. The laws of kosher food, the wearing of phylacteries, the endless meticulous rules about keeping the Sabbath -- these were not sacred to Jesus. He stood in the prophetic tradition of Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

Well, look at our American Christianity today! Are the differences which separate us Protestants into over two hundred sects sacred? Can you imagine Jesus thinking of those generally trifling bagatelles as sacred? To be sure, we are not so bad as some of our ancestors. Here is a passage from the diary of Cotton Matherís brother: "Of the manifold sins which then I was guilty of, none so sticks upon me, as that, being very young, I was whittling on the Sabbath-Day; and for fear of being seen, I did it behind the door. A great reproach of God! a specimen of that atheism that I brought into the world with me!" That is the kind of absurdity to which religion, misusing the sense of sacredness, can come -- trivial legalisms, fanatical partisanships, meaningless observances, sectarian prejudices. What a shame! For the sense of sacredness can lift character to its heights, if one uses it as Jesus did. At any rate, that is my cue: what he counted sacred really is sacred, and it makes great religion.

What utterly different meanings religion can have for diverse folk! I am often reminded of Whittier, the Quaker poet, and Whistler, the artist, reading the Bible. What did they get out of it? Says Whittier:

The starry pages, promise-lit
With Christís Evangel over-writ.

But Whistler, despite his admirable qualities, was a stormy controversialist, so that his verbal attacks on his critics were bitterly harsh and ill-tempered. When he thought of the Bible, he exclaimed, "Ah, that splendid mine of invective!" Theologians have been just as far apart as that in their interpretations of Christianity, and what some of them have taught in the name of Christ passes comprehension.

Today a far larger proportion of our population in the United States are members of Christian churches than ever before in our history. There are doubtless various reasons for this, but one reason, I am sure, is that some dogmas, once dominant in the churches, are now rarely heard about. Take, for example, predestination, teaching that even before their birth nonelect infants are damned by God to an eternal hell. Lecky, the historian, tells of one theologian who said that he doubted not there were infants not a span long crawling about the floor of hell! One wonders if that theologian had ever heard of Jesus, saying about little children that "of such is the kingdom of heaven." Or listen to Jonathan Edwards: "As innocent as children seem to be to us, yet, if they are out of Christ, they are not so in Godís sight, but are young vipers, and are infinitely more hateful than vipers." One hopes that Jonathan Edwards, as a father, was better than his creed, for he himself sired twelve of those "young vipers." What damnable things have been taught in the name of Christ, who would be horrified by them! This sort of thing explains the atheism of Robert Ingersoll and all his kind. I am old enough to remember him. He was born in western New York, the son of a clergyman who was a narrow-minded, strait-laced, Calvinistic dogmatist. Of course young Ingersoll rebelled. He thought it was better to be an atheist than to believe in the kind of God his father believed in.

Well, you see that I am agreeing with Martin Luther that religion can be corrupted into a very evil thing. So Jesus said, "If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" But that fact is a challenge. Nothing is more important on earth today than lives, homes, churches, where Christianity is at its best.

What characterizes Christianity at its best? That would take more than a letter to tell, but I venture to suggest five qualities which it always possesses.

It is a firsthand personal experience. So many church members are secondhand Christians. Their Christianity is formal, not vital. They have inherited it from their families, borrowed it from their friends, married it, taken it over like the cut of their clothes from the fashion of their group. Their churchmanship is part of their respectability -- not hypocritically professed, they believe it after a fashion -- but the profound experiences of the soul which transform character, sustain strength and courage, dedicate life, and make God intimately real, they have not known at firsthand. They are Christians by hearsay rather than by vital, inward apprehension and insight. Real religion, however, is like love. Long before we fell in love ourselves, we knew about love and believed in it. We had read the story of Ivanhoe and Rowena. We knew Romeo and Juliet. We had read Mrs. Browningís "Sonnets from the Portuguese." But then, perhaps very suddenly, we fell profoundly in love ourselves, so that the great heritage we had heard about came alive in us, became light and life and power in us. What a difference!

So Christianity at its best is a vital, compelling, personal experience. An old proverb says, "Seeing is believing." Yes, but the reverse of that is not true; believing is not necessarily seeing. Believing can be a superficial, passive acceptance of something never experienced at all. Some of us long believed that the Yosemite Valley is beautiful, but then one day we saw it! Some of us from earliest childhood believed in God, but then came the day when we could say with Job, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee." Never be content with secondhand Christianity! "What this parish needs," cried Thomas Carlyle, "is a preacher who knows God otherwise than by hearsay." Well, that goes for the laymen also.

A kindred aspect of Christianity at its best is the experience of prayer as a vital, sustaining source of spiritual power. As Alexis Carrel, the scientist, put it, "When we pray, we link ourselves with the inexhaustible motive power that spins the universe." To be sure, not all praying means that; prayer can be ignorant and superstitious. I take it for granted that you do not think that prayer is a kind of Aladdinís lamp, rightly rubbing which you magically get what you want. Neither do I. You do not think that prayer is a kind of celestial charity organization where improvident applicants receive dole. Neither do I. You do not think that prayer is a short cut whereby a select coterie of the saints secure things they have not fulfilled the conditions of getting. Neither do I. But prayer as an inward trysting place where the soul meets the Divine receptively, responsively, with humility and dedication --that is the very heart of vital religion. Some people pray with the same unashamed acquisitiveness with which a greedy child writes letters to Santa Claus, saying, Give me! Give me! But Jesus prayed, "Not my will, but thine, be done."

Nothing in religion can take the place of vital prayer. Certainly theology canít. It is important, but when a man believes in God, that is only a prelude to the possibility of communion with him. No chemical analysis of water can take the place of drinking it. No theory about sunlight can be a substitute for the enjoyment of it. Without prayer all that is left of religion is like paper flowers -- they look like flowers, they are shaped and colored like flowers, but when you come close to them there is no life, no fragrance. So Jesus tried to teach his disciples to pray. Remember his parable of the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the temple? Listen to that Pharisee: "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get." What a caricature of communion with God! But the Publicanís prayer was different: "God, be thou merciful to me, a sinner." So in this realm also the Master set good over against bad religion; for prayer, when it means an abiding sense of divine companionship and resource, can make life radiant, resilient, triumphant.

A third factor in Christianity at its best is practical dedication to the service of mankind. Religion can be easygoing, apathetic about the worldís need, a kind of modern monasticism that retreats from the challenging problems of society and seeks only peace of mind. In Jesusí eyes that would certainly be bad religion. He said, "I must be about my Fatherís business"; "The field is the world"; "Not every one who says to me ĎLord, Lordí shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." His day-by-day life was service to every sort of human need that he could reach.

Sir Alfred Zimmern, in my day one of our leading experts in international affairs, was one day walking in the gardens of Oxford University with a friend who asked him, "What, in your opinion, is the greatest obstacle between us and the building of enduring world peace?" Sir Alfred unhesitatingly answered, "The small-scale individual." Too many professing Christians deserve that description. We ministers even hear protests against the churches taking any stand on social questions. Christianity is to such protesters an affair of the individual soulís salvation and nothing more.

In contrast consider one of the greatest Christians England ever knew, Lord Shaftesbury. One major turning point in his life came when he was fourteen years old. He was walking down the street when a drunken crowd came roistering along, singing a vulgar song. Some of them were carrying on their shoulders a casket in which were a comradeís remains and, as they staggered on, all joined in the chorus of their obscene song. As they turned into the main street, they failed to negotiate the corner; their drunken legs gave way and the casket crashed to the ground. Then bedlam broke loose. The coffin bearers cursed each other, the onlooking street urchins guffawed, until at last the cracked casket was picked up again and the procession, with renewed profanity and singing, went on its way. And that was the body of an Englishman being buried in Christian England! There on the corner stood the fourteen-year-old boy. He never forgot it. It was a crisis in his life. He went out in later years to change the conditions in mine and factory for the laborer, and he succeeded so well that Matthew Arnold said the average Englishman thought of God as Lord Shaftesbury on a larger scale. That kind of spirit is an essential ingredient of Christianity at its best.

Another essential factor is unprejudiced goodwill which overpasses all lines of race and color and, seeing all men and women as equally children of God, treats all of them without bias or discrimination. I agree with H. G. Wells that race prejudice "justifies and holds together more baseness, cruelty, and abomination than any other sort of error in the world." And yet here is a Christian church in our own country whose bulletin announces, "Ours is a friendly church -- visitors are always welcome," but whose minister, as reported by Dr. Everett Tilson, said this in his sermon: "It is . . . the opinion of the official board that . . . in this time of tension any member of our church desiring to bring . . . Negroes, must previously have cleared the matter with the Pastor-in-charge, securing a written note from him to the effect that it is permissible."

What a betrayal of Christ that and everything like it is! This problem of prejudice Jesus faced all his life. His people discriminated against the Samaritans. So he told a parable in which a good Samaritan was the hero. They hated the Romans. But he found a Roman of outstanding character and said, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." They despised their neighbors, the Sidonians. So he stood up in the pulpit and said, "There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah . . . and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow." Jesusí central orthodoxy was love for all sorts of people, especially for those against whom other people had a prejudice. And when, inspired by his spirit, his church went out into the world, nothing remotely resembling what we call "segregation" was in their minds, but rather Paulís clarion call: "Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all."

Anthropologists are agreed that there are no inherently superior and inferior races. If you find that hard to believe, listen to this from a letter which Cicero wrote to Atticus in the first century B.C.: "Do not obtain your slaves from Britain, because they are so stupid and so utterly incapable of being taught that they are not fit to form a part of the household of Athens." We all came up out of the same deep, dark valley, and while some have climbed higher than others, it is true even now, as Franz Boas, the anthropologist, writes, that "if we were to select the most intelligent, imaginative, energetic, and emotionally stable third of mankind, all races would be represented."

Well, take it from Billy Graham, southern born and bred, who began with segregated revival services and now has completely integrated them. Lately in Africa a Nigerian Christian asked him, "Tell me, Billy, is it true some churches in America are still segregated?" Graham had to admit that not only some but most American churches, North and South, worshipped separately. The Nigerian, he says, looked at him unbelievingly -- "God help our Christian enterprise here in Africa, if our people ever find that out!" he said. He is right. Islam allows no racial discrimination or segregation, and Islam is outrunning Christianity in Africa. Here again the difference between good and bad religion is critically important.

One more factor in Christianity at its best deserves emphasis. If anyoneís Christianity is right, it is radiant. Any religion that is gloomy, dismal, melancholy, is not Christian. How commonly Jesus has been misrepresented! So Swinburne wrote,

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean;
The world has grown gray from Thy breath.

But Jesus was no "pale Galilean." Listen to him: "Fear not"; "Be not anxious"; "Be of good cheer"; and even when he sat with his disciples at the last meal he said, "These things have I spoken unto you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full." He said of the wild flowers that "Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these"; he had no use for solemn fast days and, when he was rebuked for this, he said that he and his friends were a bridal party, exempt from fasting; he called his gospel an invitation to a banquet issued by a king; and when he saw some unhappy life reclaimed from waywardness he said that the very angels in heaven must be singing about that. Jesusí religion was suffused with radiance and the whole New Testament reflects it, so that when I read such things as one medieval scholar said -- "A young girl should never play; she should weep much and meditate on her sins" -- I am sure that that is not only psychological nonsense but also very bad Christianity.

Christianity at its best is radiant because it sees profound meaning in life, worth living and, if need be, dying for. What is the worst thing in human experience? Not tragedy -- that can often bring out a manís best. The worst thing is meaninglessness, seeing no sense or purpose in life, tedium, boredom, ennui, questioning whether anything matters. What is existence all about? Ennui, says one writer, has made more gamblers than avarice, more drunkards than thirst, and perhaps as many suicides as despair. This central problem Christian faith at its best meets head on. It is an exciting, stimulating confidence in the meaningfulness of life, its divine origin, significance, and destiny.

How can one live without it? Even Freud, whom everyone associates with mental health, was not happy in his atheism. As an American psychiatrist has recently pointed out, Freud was haunted by anxiety about death and the meaninglessness of life. He had a superstitious fear that he was going to die during a certain year in his fifties and, while he lived some thirty years more, the thought of death worried him and he often spoke and wrote about "this senseless life." That is a long way from Paul in prison writing a radiant letter to his friends, "Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say, Rejoice."

It is time to finish, but of course the subject isnít finished. Go on, Ted, and think of other aspects of Christianity at its best. And, as you try to translate them from thinking into living, benedictions on you!

Very cordially yoursí,

Viewed 95679 times.