Chapter 9: How Does One Start to Be a Christian?

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

Chapter 9: How Does One Start to Be a Christian?

Dear Ted Brown:

I warmly appreciate your friendly letter, thanking me for that two-hour conversation we recently enjoyed. I am grateful to you for stopping over to see me on your recent trip this way. After our months of correspondence it was a genuine satisfaction to have the privilege of meeting you. I was especially interested in your bent toward diplomacy as your possible vocation. That is a field where we Americans critically need wise leadership and, if you choose it, I am sure that you will make a distinguished contribution.

But, of course, my central interest was in your progress toward a confident faith, which will put sense, meaning, and drive into your life, and I was happy to see that your serious thinking has issued in some promising results. After you left, I said to myself that your religious faith was like a new hull on the ways and that a good push would launch it. And now your letter comes, indicating much the same situation. You do not understand everything the Christian church teaches, you say, and some things that you think you do understand you do not believe, but you at least see enough in the kind of faith and life for which Christianity stands so that you would like to do something about it. But what? How does a young man like you start to be a Christian?

You remind me of a highly intelligent professional man in New York City who came to see me about admission to the Riverside Church’s membership. What he said in effect was this: "I am not even sure what I think about God, but I should like to work out my spiritual faith and life inside the Christian fellowship and not outside." Happily I was minister of a church where the doors were and are wide open to a man like that, for about three years later he said to me, "No words can estimate what this has meant --each year clearer insight, deeper assurance, and life more and more worth while." I am not saying that the way he started to be a Christian -- joining the church’s fellowship -- is necessarily your immediate prescription, but you and he are alike in this regard: you both reached a point in your spiritual growth where something needed to be decisively done.

There are various ways in which different people come into Christian faith and life. Some inherit their religion. In childhood they were taught the major truths of the gospel and saw them beautifully illumined in family life. Then they grew up, childish ways of thinking falling from them as naturally as autumn leaves, while the abiding faiths clothed themselves in new forms and fresh foliage. They never lost their confidence in God, in Christ, in the available help of the Spirit. They always could sing the great hymns, affirm the great faiths, rejoice in the deep resources of the Christian soul. Horace Bushnell said that that kind of experience is the ideal. But there was Harry Lauder, the Scottish comedian, with another kind of experience altogether. He never had any use for God at all until suddenly heartbreaking tragedy crashed down on him. "It was drink," he said. "It was drink, suicide, or God -- and I chose God."

The path which I traveled into Christian faith -- and you apparently are on the same roadway -- was very different from either Bushnell’s ideal or Lauder’s catastrophic experience. You and I indeed were reared in lovely Christian families and so had a good beginning, but we were not able, as we grew up, to accept the family’s religious faith as a hand-me-down. In one way or another we questioned it, doubted it, even threw it overboard. A generation ago Dr. Henry van Dyke said that the coat of arms of that time was an interrogation point rampant, above three bishops dormant, and its motto, Query? That represents my experience and, I judge, yours also. But now you are finding, as I did, that you don’t want to live all your life on top of a question mark. You are sure that there are great truths to believe, great ideals to be convinced about, great tasks to be under" taken. You want a positive faith. You agree with Robert Frost: "Don’t be an agnostic. Be something!" But, you ask, how do I start?

I blame the churches in general and many preachers in particular for making the problem of a young man like you so much more difficult than it needs to be. Christianity is so often presented as a huge creedal, ecclesiastical, sacramental bloc, and the inquiring mind is asked to accept it all. You probably have heard Christianity presented like this: The basis of Christian living is belief -- and then, the long, long list of things to be believed being mentally indigestible by you, you have cried, I cannot. Or you have heard it presented like this: To be a Christian you must join the church -- and then such insistence on sectarian peculiarities, or even such theories about the one true church, that finding the appeal utterly alien to your normal thinking, you have cried again, I cannot. Or you have heard it presented like this: To be a Christian you must have mystical experiences -- and then a picture has been drawn of inward tumults miraculously stilled, of upheavals like a storm in summer coming to a sunset all peace and glory, so that, not having attained to such experiences or having found them elusive and fleeting, you have cried once more, I cannot.

Well, I am going to appeal from such bloc presentations of the Christian life to Jesus himself. I am sure that he would approach you in another way altogether. My way of living, he would say --will you try it? With yourself, with your fellows, with your God --will you try it? Discipleship to me, he would say, is a way of living, it is something to be done. Indeed, he not only would say that, he did say that: "Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man"; "Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father"; "Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother"; "Go and do likewise"; and again, as Weymouth translates it, "If anyone is willing to do His will, he shall know about the teaching." That sounds as though he meant it, doesn’t it? Moreover, note the first verse of The Acts of the Apostles: "All that Jesus began both to do and to teach." Not first "teach"-- words, verbalization -- but deeds. Being a follower of Jesus was something to be done.

I call your attention to this because, so far in our correspondence, we have been arguing. Even in my last letter, when I tried to present the spiritual experiences on which religious assurance is based, I was arguing. But in every realm where truth is sought the hour comes when further discovery depends, not on argument, but on experiment, on decision and on action. Can an airplane fly from New York to Paris? We never could have answered that question by cogitation only. When all the knowledge that engineering theory could provide was ours, another way of acquiring knowledge was demanded. The situation then faced men like Lindbergh, saying, Will you? Will you try?

I suspect that you are facing that kind of situation in your spiritual life. Don’t stop thinking! The time will never come when religious faith will not face you with intellectual problems. But that is not the whole story. You have come a long way since I first heard from you; you have light enough to walk by, assurance enough to act on. I would not have you make any decision on insufficient evidence, but the fact remains that life in this regard presses necessities upon us which we cannot avoid. In the deepest areas of our experience hesitation to decide is decision. If a man year after year cannot make up his mind whether to marry or to be a bachelor, he has made up his mind. He is a bachelor. If a man cannot make up his mind to be a Christian, he has made up his mind. He is not a Christian. In all our most vital experiences hesitating procrastination is decision. The kind of approach which Jesus habitually made to people took that fact into account.

There isn’t a single thing in the Sermon on the Mount which cannot be translated into action. Run over the list of the Master’s emphases and see! Brotherliness that cherishes no inward hate, undiscourageable goodwill that does not resort to retaliation for a wrong done -- that is livable. Purity that respects the sanctity of womanhood; sincerity that makes your "yea" enough without an oath and your word as good as your bond; magnanimity, like Lincoln’s, with malice toward none, with charity for all; kindness which unostentatiously helps one’s fellows, the right hand not knowing what the left hand does -- all that is livable. Fellowship with God in secret prayer and faith in a coming victory of righteousness, desiring which above all else a man puts first things first -- that can be lived. I am not saying that this kind of life is easy, but I am saying that it is a kind of life -- not speculative theory appealing for our creedal consent, but moral reality saying, Will you try it?

That was the Master’s characteristic method of approach. How utterly different from the way many of our churchmen come at us, putting primary emphasis on theories of inspiration, ecclesiastical regularities, forms of sacrament, creedal subscriptions, or metaphysical theories of the Trinity! I am saying to you, Don’t worry about such matters now. Jesus never mentioned a single one of them. You can tackle them and others like them as your thought and experience develop, but meanwhile you can start now to be a Christian by facing up to the kind of challenge that Jesus presented to his first disciples: "Follow me." That is to say, here is a kind of faith and life which can be acted out -- will you try it?

In considering this challenge, ask yourself first whether you do not really have now sufficient insight, evidence, faith, and assurance to justify such a positive decision. Suppose you were lost in the Adirondack woods at night -- no moon, no stars, no guidance anywhere save, perchance, a distant gleam as of a lamp through a cottage window on a far-off mountainside -- would you sit down and say, Because the noonday sun is not here to make everything perfectly clear, I will do nothing? No! You would act in response to the light you have, though it were only the flickering of a distant lamp. Well, that is no fair picture of your situation. From our correspondence, and now from our conversation, I know that you possess a lot of illumination, on the basis of which it is important that you should act.

In no area of vital experience can we know everything before we start. We have to start first with partial knowledge. That is true about friendship. Perfect friendship has its finished creed, although happily expressed in poetry:

. . . The widest land

Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine

With pulses that beat double. What I do

And what I dream include thee, as the wine

Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue

God for myself, He hears that name of thine,

And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

That is the expression of perfected love, but can no one begin to be a friend until he can say all that? Of course one can begin. Friendship is an adventure. We must try it before we can fully know it.

Obviously this truth applies to religion, where we are dealing with the ultimate mysteries of the universe and the profoundest experiences of the soul. If you wait until you see all with perfect clarity before you act on what you do see, you will never get anywhere at all. As Coleridge exclaimed, "Try it. Do not talk to me of the evidences for Christianity. Try it."

In the second place, if you will think of becoming a Christian in terms of a positive response to Jesus’ approach, you can start where you are. I know that you think it an inadequate place to start from, but that was true of all of us. There is an old story about an Englishman, traveling in Ireland, who asked an Irishman, cutting peat in the wilds of Connemara, how to get to Letterfrack. The old man labored over the directions until, having done his best, he exclaimed, "If it was meself that was going to Letterfrack, faith! I wouldn’t start from here." Who of us that ever came into the Christian life has not felt like that? Sometimes we preachers make that problem, not easier, but more difficult. We present Christianity en masse, a great system with all our beliefs, our institutions, our sacramental customs, our ethical ideals in one solidified whole. Accept all this, we seem to say, believe all this, and become a Christian. But for many a man, who would like to be a Christian, that is too much of a leap to make in one bound. It is like asking a student to accept and give credence to the whole curriculum before he begins his freshman year. A man has to start from where he is. He has no other place to start from.

Marvelous was the method of the Master in dealing with this situation. He sat across the dinner table from Zacchaeus. He wanted Zacchaeus to become a follower. Did he present Zacchaeus with a huge and intricate system of theological speculation and ecclesiastical practice? No, he did not. Zacchaeus would not have understood that in the least. The Master used another approach altogether: My way of living, Zacchaeus, you are not living it; you are a selfish and dishonest taxgatherer; but my way of living, will you try it? And Zacchaeus made his decision: Your way of life -- I will try it; "the half of my goods I give to the poor and, if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said in effect, A great start! "Today salvation has come to this house."

Don’t misunderstand me! I am not saying that what Zacchaeus saw and did that day is all there is to Christianity. Of course not! Christianity is a profound philosophy about life’s ultimate meaning, a challenging gospel about life’s ideals and about divine resources for fulfilling them. As long as you live you never will scale the heights nor reach the depths of it, but you can start where you are. As precedent to that start, I do not ask that you believe what I believe even about Christ. My beliefs about Christ are very high. Once they were not. Years ago I was unsure, but I have seen the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in his face, and as between a high Christology that discovers the Divine in Christ, and a low Christology that reduces him to our mold and size, I hold a high Christology. But before you start being a Christian you do not need to comprehend and believe all that the Nicene fathers meant when they lifted their triumphant cry that "Very God of Very God" had come to them in Christ. The question is, How much do you see in Christ, and will you follow that as far as it leads you, and then follow the further light that comes? Already you do see a great deal in Christ that rebukes your sins, allures your ideals, summons your devotion, and challenges your faith. Then start where you are!

My third comment is that, if you do, you will discover that, far from having stopped your intellectual search for truth and substituted action for thinking, you will have put yourself into a situation where you are going to think harder and learn more than you ever did before. The deepest truths and values in life cannot be reached by intellectual speculation alone -- what Shelley called the "owl-winged faculty of calculation." Someday you are going to fall in love. When you do, you had better use your head. Be as sure as you can that what you experience is love and not infatuation only. But when all the evidence your head can accumulate is in, what you will have on your hands will be not a Q.E.D. but an adventure. Will you marry her and try? Only after that will you learn for sure what you had been speculating about.

As I think of your inward tussle with the problems of religious faith I do not want it to exhaust itself in speculation, without the clarifying, vitalizing influence of action. Someone -- I forget who -- has said, "It is often easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than to think yourself into a new way of acting." That is everlastingly true, and nowhere more so than in the realm of spiritual experience and faith. If one were seeking a place where he could discover the reality of God, where should he go? To a theological seminary? No; I lived and taught for years in a theological seminary, and I know better. You can learn many things about God in a theological seminary. You can clarify your ideas of him; you can learn the history of the conceptions that men have held concerning him -- all of which is very important. But the great souls that have made God real to the world may or may not have been in theological seminaries. Many of the noblest of them started, as you have done, to think themselves into a Christian way of living, but the climax of their experience was that they magnificently lived themselves into an ever profounder Christian way of thinking. Jesus said that: "If anyone is willing to do his will, he shall know about the teaching."

When David Livingstone was buried in Westminster Abbey, they sang his favorite hymn,

O God of Bethel, by whose hand

Thy people still are fed.

Remembering that hymn, as it re-echoed through the Abbey, until one comes to the last verse where God’s presence is sought "till all our wanderings cease," one can well understand why that was Livingstone’s favorite hymn. Of course God was real to a man like that. Had he not taken a whole continent upon his heart? Had he not buried his wife’s body on the seacoast and then, despite his heartbreak, had he not headed in on that last, terrific journey through untracked jungles into the interior, that he might strike a blow at the heart of the slave trade? No man can work for God like that without growing in assurance that he is working with God. Faith can produce action -- yes! But then action can deepen faith. Even Lafcadio Hearn, far away from religion though he was, said, "I think, all jesting aside, could I create something I felt to be sublime, I should feel also that the Unknowable had selected me for a mouthpiece, for a medium of utterance . . . and I should know the pride of a prophet who has seen the face of God."

You probably are thinking that you are a long way from either David Livingstone or Lafcadio Hearn. O.K.! But I am sure that what I have tried to say in this letter is relevant to your situation. Sometimes I deal with dogmatic minds, self-assured, assertive, arrogant, reminding one of the old saying that of all dogs that ever got a bad name dogma is the worst. That is not your danger at all. You are an open-minded, tolerant inquirer after truth. I like your kind. But, as I know only too well, that open-minded attitude has its dangers also. Hamlet said it:

The native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.

So, I am hoping that you will soon find it possible, starting where you are, to decide to be a Christian.

Very cordially yours,