Chapter 4: The Insufficiency of Individual Religion

The Predicament of Modern Man
by Elton Trueblood

Chapter 4: The Insufficiency of Individual Religion

I am forced to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.

Albert Einstein

The chief argument of this book up to this point represents the thinking of great numbers in the Western world and will presumably, therefore, be convincing to many readers who have given serious thought to the problem of the reconstruction of civilization in our time. The characteristic modern is not a sheer pagan and certainly will not be attracted to the claims of synthetic barbarism as presented by either its major or its minor prophets. Too many centuries of Christian culture have intervened between pagan times and our own for the resuscitation of paganism to succeed where it has been consciously attempted.

Just as most of the citizens of the Western world reject paganism, when they give the matter any attention, so likewise do they recognize the untenability of power culture. The experience of the last decade has been sufficient to convince great numbers, if they were not convinced before, that civilized life cannot prosper, or even survive, without the undergirding of strong ethical convictions. The neglect of ethics means decay, no matter how great the initial power may be.

The average modern, we believe, goes at least one step further than this. As he is not a pagan, so he is not irreligious. He will agree that mere ethics is unable to produce the required regeneration, and, humanist as he is, he sees that the strength of humanism comes from something beyond humanism. The need of religion, if our culture is to be saved, is widely recognized, not merely by theologians, but by men concerned with science, with the humanities, and with the social sciences.(See Robert S. Lynd, Knowledge for What, Princeton, 1939, especially pp. 239 ff.) Theoretical and explicit atheism is comparatively rare and is frequently denied by those who might be supposed to espouse it. The belief in God may be both weak and attenuated, but there is great reluctance to renounce it wholly.

Not only is the average modern not irreligious; he is also not anti-Christian. He recognizes, when he thinks about it, that he stands within the Christian tradition, and he has no practical acquaintance with any other. He may never read the Bible, but the value judgments of the Bible, and especially the gospel, have become in large measure his own standards, even though he gives them little conscious attention. Twentieth century man, if pressed for an answer, admits that he believes in a moral order, that he believes in religion, and that he believes in the Christian religion, but there he stops. He is trying to live in the midst of the world storm, not as an adherent of paganism and not as an opponent of the Christian faith, but as one who adheres to that faith in the most vague and tenuous manner conceivable. He claims to be a shareholder in the Christian corporation, but the stock has been watered almost to the vanishing point and is held, moreover, by absentee owners.

If we are to speak truly to our age, therefore, we can assume, not (1) the complete ignorance of Christian principles, such as existed in the decaying civilization of early Greece and Rome; (2) the thoroughgoing knowledge and acceptance of Christian principles, such as existed in the time of most of our grandparents; or (3) the vigorous antagonism to the gospel, such as now exists among those who accept either the Marxist or the Fascist interpretation of history; but (4) a vague and tenuous residuum of Christian piety, devoid of any intention of doing anything about it. To know our spiritual situation is something, for it at least saves us from dealing with straw men. The hopeful side of the picture is that the number of persons who are disturbed by this state of affairs, because they doubt if a vague and tenuous piety can sustain a civilization, is obviously growing.

The notion that we cannot have a decent world apart from a faith sufficient to inspire high ethical standards and action is now gaining ground. Not long ago the majority of our educated citizens appeared to suppose that ethical standards are self-supporting and that a humanistic culture is self-sustaining. Now most of them know better, having been convinced not so much by the logic of words as by the logic of events. They have been led by experience to conclude that the only power in human life able to counterbalance the dark and divisive faiths of our time is a still stronger faith, a faith concerned with Reality rather than human wishes.

The question before anyone who cares about the fate of men and women in the modern world is the question how a really saving faith can be encouraged and promoted. How can modern man, whose world seems to topple about him, regain a living faith in the Living God, so that he can feel once more both the dignity of his own life and the dignity of the lives of his fellow men -- everywhere?

In this great task the work of those who use their mental powers to show that the theistic hypothesis is true is, of course, absolutely essential. No matter how helpful a faith is, if it is not true, we want nothing of it. We would rather go to pieces on the basis of honesty than to patch up a civilization on the basis of fiction or wishful thinking. But that, fortunately, is not the point now most pressing. The rational arguments for theism were never stronger than they are today and never better presented. There are no philosophical or scientific discoveries that have outmoded them. The point to make now is that intellectual convincement, necessary as it is and valuable as it is, is not sufficient. For faith to become concrete it must be embodied in a human society. Separated, individual believers will not be able to make any headway against the present storm.

What is sobering in this regard is the fact that so many of the intellectual leaders of our time are willing to stop with intellectual convincement. Distinguished men of letters, essayists, novelists, and poets, have recently asserted their conviction that the only thing which can save our sagging culture is a revival of religious faith, but many of these men make no contact whatever with the particular organizations in their own communities which are dedicated to the nourishment of the very faith they declare necessary for our salvation. There are countless people who would resent being considered irreligious but who reject the practice of group religion. "I have my own religion," has become a cliché. Some prefer to say they believe in Christianity but not in Churchianity. In short, they believe in religion, but not in the church. They are keenly aware of the weaknesses of the church as they have known it and they propose the experiment of churchless religion. Since this way of thinking is so widespread, we must consider it seriously.

When we think of the awful need of humanity at this hour, it seems almost grotesque to turn to the church for help, if by the church we mean not some idealization, but the actual human organizations we know. On the face of it, the hypothesis that the church can play a major part in saving civilization seems an outrageous hypothesis. While it is manifestly true that there is a great faith which has long been the secret of life in Western man, does not the ordinary church, whether in New York, Middletown, or Gopher Prairie, provide such a caricature of this faith that it is really a joke? What mankind desperately needs is Justice, Mercy, and Truth, but what we are offered is some ugly stained-glass windows and a holy tone and a collection plate full of dimes.

Any candid observer will agree that most of the popular criticisms of the church are justified. It has hypocrites in it, and it is weak when it ought to be strong. But the urgent question is the question of a better alternative when the nature of our present crisis is such that our option is a forced option. The only live alternatives to the church are the pseudo religions of totalitarianism or vague religiosity. Since we have already seen reason to reject one of these, the other, i.e., vague religiosity, is really the only alternative to the church that our present culture offers. Loyal identification with the church may have difficulties, but the alternative position may have more. Since no position on any fundamental question is wholly free from difficulties, the path of wisdom lies not in rejecting a position because it is found to have difficulties but rather in making an honest comparison of difficulties involved in alternatives. John Baillie’s report on the effectiveness of this approach is interesting and instructive:

I am happy to count among my own friends a rather remarkable number of men of high intellectual distinction who have returned to the full Christian outlook after years of defection from it, and I should say that in practically every case the renewed hospitality of their minds to Christian truth came about through their awakening to the essential untenability of the alternative positions which they had been previously attempting to occupy.(John Baillie, Invitation to Pilgrimage, p. 15)

What, then, are the real difficulties of the position in which so many of our sensitive contemporaries have halted, the position of the man who has his own religion but who does not throw his efforts into the establishment and enlargement of any religious group or church? The first important difficulty is the moral one that such a person is a parasite. He is taking more than he is giving. He lives in a world many of the desirable features of which have come about by the slow, painful efforts of just such groups of weak and sinful men as he now refuses to join. Since the position of the social parasite is one that cannot be universalized, it is indefensible to the sensitive conscience when the true position is made clear. Consequently, it is desirable to put as forcibly as we can the following query: Do I profit by a spiritual movement and yet dissociate myself deliberately from the practical task of keeping it going when my help is needed?

A second difficulty, closely allied with that of parasitism, concerns family life. The moral foundations of our culture, which organized religion has done so much to maintain, are often reasonably secure for one generation, even when actual sharing in the corporation is given up. Sometimes, under favorable conditions, it is secure longer, but those who engage in personal counseling are aware of the constant problem of the religiously detached family in which the parents are amazed at the moral bankruptcy of their children. They cannot see why their children fail to have the same standards as their own, but in truth they have denied their children any practical contact with the ongoing tradition that is chiefly concerned with keeping these alive in our culture. A strong religious movement often has enough momentum to carry over in effect for one generation, but seldom for two. The highly publicized Hollywood type of morality may not actually characterize Hollywood as a whole, but it is what we have a right to expect and what we actually find in many families that have drifted away from organized religious influence.

Those who are concerned today with the nurture of student religious life report consistently that the best work in holding the loyalty of students is carried on by those denominations which constitute a self-conscious minority, so that the members feel that they have much in common with one another. Critics of such faiths as Christian Science and Mormonism cannot but be impressed with the beneficent effect that the reality of group life has on many young people. They present a sharp contrast to the rank and file of students, most of whom call themselves Protestants merely because they are neither Roman Catholic nor Jewish and who often have little appreciation of a heritage that is precious.

There are millions of families in which the parents believe in God and live virtuous lives but in which, inasmuch as they are separated from organized religion, the children miss the steadying influence of those institutional practices which serve as constant reminders of what otherwise it is easy to forget. Young lives are formed, not chiefly by the intellectual beliefs of their parents, of which they may be wholly ignorant, but far more by family practices, such as attendance at public worship, which become habitual and are eventually unconscious influences of incalculable importance

It is historically correct to say that Christianity has never been a saving force in civilization when it has been looked upon as a set of noble precepts which men may observe in isolation. In the beginning the Christian faith was, above all, a fellowship. In the decaying empire of Rome there arose a fellowship so powerful that, for a while, Christians had all things in common. The fellowship was not always perfect, as the Corinthian Letters of St. Paul so clearly demonstrate, but that it should be a fellowship was central to the gospel.

The basic difficulty with vague religiosity is that human beings are weak and fallible and need artificial or consciously constructed supports. It is theoretically possible to be a good man without participation in the life of a religious community, but in practice the difficulties are enormous. We know what we ought to do, but we need reminders; we believe in a moral order, but we need inspiration and fellowship. We are small indeed, and we need to participate in something bigger than we are. The person who says so proudly that he has his own religion and consequently has no need of the church is committing what has been well called "the angelic fallacy." If we were angels, we might not need artificial help, but, being men, we normally do need it. And, whether we need it or not, others need it and we have some responsibility to them.

By participation in an ongoing religious community, particularly of the type we know in the Western world, an isolated individual is partly lifted above himself, not only because he may, in a group, be more recipient of God’s help, but also because he there shares in the distilled wisdom of our race. Week after week he hears the reading of great classics, such as the Psalms or the parables of Jesus, so that the total impact is great indeed. The reading can hardly be so poor as to spoil utterly the noble words. He shares in ancient hymns that weak men like himself have used for generations. He may still find that his highest experiences come to him as he walks alone with his dog, but these experiences are more likely to come to him if he walks with the richness of memory that participation in the ongoing community makes possible.

Finally, our vague religiosity faces an insuperable difficulty in that it provides no way by which the precious insights of our religious heritage are to be maintained. Had we always been limited to individual religion, like that which is fashionable now, we should not even be aware of the great testimonies which have survived so many crises and which the average individualist cherishes. Apart from the church, we should not have kept the Bible or the great hymns or the great prayers or even the very notion of the gospel.

Poor and weak as it is, the church may become the means of our cultural salvation because, with all its human mistakes, it includes certain contributions that otherwise the world may lose and that men have actually lost temporarily in some areas. The great testimonies, which it is the mission of the church to make and without which human life would be even more savage and degraded than it now is, are many, but four are of paramount importance in the reconstruction of civilization.

(1) The first great testimony that the church makes in all times is that of equality before God. Because every man, whatever his color, his knowledge, his station, or his financial standing, is a child of God, there is a profound level at which men are equal. They are not equal in that they have the same powers, but they are equal in that each is equally accountable. The upshot of this doctrine, perhaps the most disturbing that the human mind can hold, is that king and commoner are equally subject to the moral law. The result of this is bound to be democracy or something very much like it.

According to the gospel, the king is as much subject to the moral law as is the humblest subject, because he did not make it. It is grounded in the nature of things, which is to say it is part of the will of God. So long as there is a suggestion that some nations or some persons are above the law, there can never be a decent world, for then there is no brake on sheer power. The conviction that no nation and no person is above the law is the contribution of the Judaeo-Christian revelation to the whole world. The ancient Hebrews saw it in a way that would be shocking to us if we were not already so familiar with the idea. The Hebrews were a people among whom even King David could be judged for his cowardly treatment of the husband of Bathsheba. This testimony has come over into the Christian tradition and has been at the base of countless revolutions. Slavery and social stratification and entrenched privilege are of long standing in human society but they are never really secure so long as the gospel is known.

(2) The second great testimony is the testimony for peace. We take this for granted as wholly natural until we are stabbed awake by contemporary prophets who reject the gospel and hold that a condition of war is better, lifting and cleansing a nation. Actually the Christian teaching about peace is at variance with many other cultural traditions and could easily have been lost, apart from conscious fostering. The major Christian tradition has not been pacifism, in the sense of refusal to share in any war, but it has been a testimony for peace in the sense that war is seen as a necessary evil at best and never something in which to glory. It has frequently been accepted as the least of alternative evils but seldom as a positive good.(Excellent historical treatments of this subject are available, especially Umphrey Lee, The Historic Church and Modern Pacifism, Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, New York; 1943, and C. J. Cadoux, The Early Church and the World, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1925.) Here the position of Augustine is representative. It was his conviction that the Christian must always contemplate wars with mental pain and that "if any one either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, his is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost all human feeling." (The City of God, XIX, vii.)

It is the sad truth that wars have raged intermittently in Christendom and that the present conflict, the worst yet, has broken out in Europe, which has been under Christian influence for at least a millennium and a half; but the Christian faith has never accepted this situation or failed to deplore it. Given the inventions of our day, life might be even worse if there were not the leavening influence for peace, which shows itself in the renewed determination, on the part of millions, to try to make a world in which war is no longer a recurrent phenomenon. But the point to remember is that these millions are voicing a conviction which it has been the role of the church to foster for centuries. The world is bad enough with the leaven; it is frightening to contemplate what it might become without the leaven.

(3) The third great testimony of the church is that of universality. Though the church itself is a fractured body, it has never lost sight of the fact that it is a body, namely, the body of Christ. The notion of the Church Universal has been maintained. Actually the degree to which the natural divisiveness of mankind has been transcended has been very great. Men of all colors and all nationalities worship together and maintain bonds of friendship across boundaries, even in wartime. Men of every nationality, in all churches, listen to the same gospel, sing the same hymns, read the same Bible, and revere the same Lord.

The situation in regard to the testimony for universality is similar to that in regard to the testimony for peace, in that both have seemingly been honored chiefly in the breach and yet both have been maintained as leaven.

Man is naturally divisive and would be more so than he is were there not a conscious fostering of the universal principle of essential oneness. Our faith has never fully succeeded in bringing together men of various nations and races as one family conscious of their common origin and destiny, but it has never ceased to preach that this is the true way. There has been in the world for many centuries a continuous society devoted, not to the glorification of one race or nation or class, but to the notion that Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, Oriental and Occidental are really brothers because they are all children of a common Father. We have denied this in practice by slavery, by racial discrimination, and in a thousand other ways, but the leaven has been always at work, so that we cannot contemplate these things with equanimity or complacency. The contribution of the church to civilization is not to be measured so much by the actual degree of unity it has achieved in mankind as by the manner in which it has kept alive the ideal of world unity. Racial discrimination can never be wholly acceptable to a people who have heard from their youth that God has "made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth . . . ." (Acts 17:26) There is no evidence or even likelihood that this testimony would have been preserved apart from the action of the organized body of believers. Separated individuals could not have done it.

(4) The fourth great testimony is that of renunciation of worldly pride. This, also, appears to have been honored in the breach, in that we find the emergence of power politics in Christian countries and even in the church, which has sometimes aped the world by the honor it gives to its "dignitaries." But here, again, the leaven is always at work. So long as we claim to be part of Christendom we can never wholly ignore the fact that Christ said, "You know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them; but it is not so among you." We tend to take a worldly satisfaction in being called "Doctor, Doctor," but our satisfaction is dimmed when we remember that Jesus said, "Be not called, Rabbi, Rabbi," which means the same thing. The medieval world goes in for splendor; but along comes a man like St. Francis, who drinks again of the fountain that is the gospel, and his subsequent life is a tacit criticism of the splendor about him.

In spite of the recurrent failure of the church to be true to Christ’s teaching, in this important matter, the fact remains that the gospel continues to this day to be the chief antidote to the cult of power which has been the worst scourge of our distraught century. The real brake on Hitler’s doctrines, as on those of Nietzsche before him, is still the gospel of Jesus Christ. If it did nothing else but keep alive in the world the disturbing and revolutionary notion that humble service is better than strutting power, wise men would support and foster the church with all the strength at their command.

After we listen to all the familiar criticisms of the church, including its provincialism, the hypocrisy of its members, the self-centeredness of its leaders, and after we have agreed with all these criticisms, we may still find it reasonable to believe that the church is the only foundation on which our tottering civilization can be restored. It is the stone that our modern builders have rejected, but it may actually be the indispensable cornerstone. We begin to suspect that this is the case when we see the record of the church in the midst of our world storm The record of the church has not been perfect, but it has been better than its despisers expected. This is conspicuously true in China, where the identification of Christian missionaries with their wounded and broken Chinese friends has made thoughtful men everywhere a bit ashamed of their rather cheap jibes at the missionary enterprise.

All the world knows of the way in which representative members of the Confessional Church of Germany have given the Nazis their toughest opposition. It is part of the record that the labor unions and the universities and learned societies bowed the knee to Baal, when Pastor Niemoeller and his kind stood up like men. The testimony of Albert Einstein in this connection is well known, but it cannot be repeated too often:

Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks....

Only the church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.

(Time, December 23, 1940, p. 38.)

This is an extremely sobering report, coming as it does from one who has no conceivable private stake in the success of the church. And such a witness does not stand alone. Lewis Mumford, who specifically disclaims being a theologian, has made observations like those made by Einstein and comes to the conclusion that the church is humanity’s hope. "And a Church," he writes, "that taught one part of mankind to walk upright and unafraid through one Dark Age may yet summon up the power that will enable us to avert another Dark Age, or to face it, if it begins to descend upon us, with unyielding courage."(Lewis Mumford, Faith for Living, pp. 173, 174.)

At this point the average modern faces a real problem. He may be convinced that individual religion is insufficient, especially in the present storm, either to strengthen the individual or to maintain the testimonies which we prize, but when he proposes to join a church he is baffled. Instead of a church, he finds churches. Shall he join the Roman Catholics, or shall he seek fellowship with one of the many Protestant churches, perhaps the one nearest him or the one where he already has friends? He would like to join the trunk, but he cannot find anything but branches.

There is no doubt that the difficulty is sometimes great, but it is one which the unfriendly critic tends to distort. Sectarianism is often, though not always, an evil. Sometimes a special Christian group keeps alive some testimony that might otherwise be lost and all others are consequently indebted to them. In the little churches, so easy to caricature, there are frequently found a genuine sharing of life and a generosity of giving that are sufficient to make the average critic ashamed of his criticism. It is the funny little churches, all over the land, that have provided the money that has made possible the courageous work of the missionaries in China who have, in great numbers, stayed with their Chinese friends in the face of invasion and personal danger or death.

The truth is that a good part of the objection to denominationalism no longer applies to the present situation. The refusal of the Roman Catholics to have any part in the ecumenical movement is a genuine difficulty, but, in spite of this, the amount of agreement among most Christian groups is now very great indeed. The great ecumenical conferences of recent years have shown that most of the denominations have more in common than was generally supposed. We begin to realize that this is the case when we try the experiment of hearing various Christian leaders and guessing what their denominational affiliation is. We have little success. The point is, then, that, though various denominations still exist, it often makes little practical difference which one a man joins since they have so much essential unity.

It may be, however, that some, while convinced of the insufficiency of individual religion, cannot find a church which satisfies them. Since the necessity of social witness remains, anyone in this situation ought to start a church of his own. The imperfection of the present churches does not absolve a man who cares about civilization from seeking to join in the kind of group action that will help to conserve what cannot be conserved by mere individual faith and worship.

Instead of being baffled by any difficulties that we may feel about church membership we need to ask ourselves quite seriously where else we may turn. What organized institution is there, apart from the church, that has as its major purpose the fostering of Justice, Mercy, and Truth and the Freedom that they jointly make possible. Bad and divided as the church may be, it is the only organization really working at the job of affecting men’s lives in the deep way in which they must be affected if what we prize is to survive.

It might be supposed that we could turn to the schools, since the task of the schools is constantly being enlarged, but the very nature of the modern school precludes this, as we have already noted in Chapter I.(For a careful and scholarly study of this problem see Alvin W. Johnson, The Legal Status of Church-State Relationships in the United States with Special Reference to the Public Schools, University of Minnesota Press, 1934.) It cannot be the universities, since they touch only a small fraction of the population at best and, furthermore, many universities reject the notion that they are responsible for the spiritual life of their students. There are, of course, many different agencies keeping up different phases of what we have defined as the life of the spirit, but they are not sufficient, even when taken all together, for they do not give the dynamic of an organized faith.

If faith is to be effective in undergirding civilized society, it must be given some concrete embodiment. Civilization will not be saved because there are men and women who make the mere affirmation that God exists. Life is not raised to new levels by the mere fact that we have been intellectually convinced by the cosmological argument. Our predicament is too great and too serious for our salvation to come in so academic a manner. What is needed is something that can set men’s souls on fire. What is required is a vision of man’s life under God’s Providence which so thrills us to the center of our beings that we are willing to commit ourselves, soul and body, to the incarnation of that vision.

What, in historical experience, has most often been able to do this? It is that hypocritical, bickering organization that we call the church. Without it we might long ago have been submerged. If our civilization is to be saved, we must have it or something like it, for man is the kind of creature who needs it. The rock on which the church is built often appears to be weather-beaten rubble, because it is all mixed up with human frailty, but the lesson of history is a continual verification of the judgment that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.