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.


(ENTIRE BOOK) The fictional character of Ted Brown represents a young man who comes from a religious background, who is seriously trying to work out an intelligent philosophy of life, is sensitive to spiritual values, and who seeks a vocation where he can make the most of his best for the sake of others. This is not an attempt to give an answer those totally apart from a religious background — "beatnik" contemporaries for example, that would consider Ted Brown a "square."


  • Foreword

    There are more like Ted Brown, trying to work out a reasonable religious philosophy, than some people suspect, and they are asking questions which, far from being youthfully immature, are being asked also by some octogenarians.

  • Chapter 1:<B> </B>How Fares Goodness without God?

    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. But one needs more than just ethics. One needs a philosophy of life that will put sense, meaning, hope, into one’s existence.

  • Chapter 2:<B> </B>Is Christian Faith Credulity?

    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.

  • Chapter 3: Why Not Be an Agnostic?

    There are many other positive contributions which faith in God makes to a man’s life and which agnosticism misses — all the way from confidence that this is really a universe of moral order where no lie can live forever, to confidence that death is an open door into life eternal.

  • Chapter 4: How Do You Picture God?

    No wonder that many people have difficulty believing in God! Like all the rest of us, they start with childish ideas of God — a venerable bookkeeper, with white flowing beard, standing behind a high desk and writing down everybody’s bad deeds. Yet a man’s best is so marvelously revealed in Jesus Christ that he is the best picture, the best symbol, the best image of God.

  • Chapter 5:<B> </B>What about Supernaturalism?

    What is really silly is the whole picture of a bifurcated cosmos. This is one world, a spiritual system throughout, where we never get what we want until we fulfill the conditions for getting it. If we want physical results we must fulfill physical conditions. If we want spiritual results, we must fulfill spiritual conditions.

  • Chapter 6: What About Modern Science and the Bible?

    The Bible and science are utterly irreconcilable. That is to say, the Bible is not a book of science. It contains many literary types — history, poetry, fiction, biography, drama, preaching, letters — but it contains no book that can be called scientific. I turn to the Bible, not for scientific instruction, but for spiritual illumination. Despite modern science, this is still a miraculous world.

  • Chapter 7: How Explain the World’s Evil?

    Evil presents us with a problem not merely speculative but very practical. How to be the kind of person who can stand up to life, face its difficult challenges and hardships, and carry off a victory in quality of character and useful living — that central problem confronts us all. Jesus never said, I have explained the world, but he did say, "I have overcome the world."

  • Chapter 8: But How Can We Be Sure?

    The most important truths cannot be reached by theory, speculation, induction alone; they must be experienced if they are to be known. When I think of faith, I think of Cape Canaveral in Florida. What built that rocket base? Faith — amazing faith that we can conquer space, put men in orbit, reach the moon, perhaps reach Mars and Venus. And there at Cape Canaveral, as everywhere in science, faith is marshaling intelligence, organizing experimentation, leading the way to knowledge.

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

    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!

  • Chapter 10: Was Jesus an Impractical Idealist?

    Jesus an impractical idealist? — who more than he knew the ugly facts of life? Who more than he was hated, rejected by his people, betrayed by a friend, spat upon, and crucified? Who better than he knew what base things can come from the black depths of the human heart, dealing as he did with extortioners and prostitutes, the cruelty of the strong and the bigotry of the religious, and feeling over all the tyranny of a vast military empire? But it is he and his teaching that have endured and have again and again, in one field after another, realistically confirmed his saying, “I am the truth.”

  • Chapter 11: What about the Other Great Religions?

    Eleven living faiths claiming man’s devotion are discussed: Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddllism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. If, in view of all these varied kinds of religion and diverse interpretations of Christianity, you feel bewildered, and wonder just what being a Christian really is, I would call your thoughts home to Christianity’s unique Fact, Jesus Christ.

  • Chapter 12: What about the Trinity?

    The doctrine of the Trinity is an artificial construct. It tries to relate different problems and to fit them into an arbitrary and traditional threeness. It produces confusion rather than clarification; and while the problems with which it deals are real ones, the solutions it offers are not illuminating. It has posed for many Christians dark and mysterious statements, which are ultimately meaningless…. We are confronted in the New Testament with three dominant symbols of God. These we call and should use to express deep Christian concerns. But we should avoid supposing that they do not overlap, or that they imply three distinct persons in the Trinity.

  • Chapter 13: What About the Atonement?

    There never has been any salvation in this world from any evil thing except through vicarious sacrifice. Someone who did not have to do it volunteered to shoulder another’s burden — the well for the sick, the intelligent for the ignorant, the privileged for the unprivileged, the innocent for the guilty. Isn’t it a paradox that some of the most controversial words in Christian theology — "Trinity" and "atonement," for example — are not to be found in the New Testament? In the King James Version "atonement" occurs only once — Romans 5:11 — but the revised versions correct that translation and use "reconciliation."

  • Chapter 14: What to Do about the Curse of Conformity?

    Genuine independence is the substitution of inward self-control for outward, circumstantial control. An uncontrolled life is not independent; it’s a mess, a shambles. A life controlled by outward pressures, pushed about by fads and crazes, compliantly conforming with popular attitudes and fashions, is obviously not independent. The only way anyone achieves genuine independence is by strong, intelligent, inward self-control — something inside that judges right from wrong, determines conduct and, if need be, refuses compliance no matter what the cost.

  • Chapter 15: Why Join a Church?

    The Church needs us; and our children and their children are going to need the Church. Let’s see to it that the costly heritage does not suffer by our neglect of it. More and more churches are not simply talking about Jesus, but are exhibiting his spirit in practical service seven days and nights a week. They present to a layman one of the best opportunities he can ever find to invest his time and energy in useful work.

  • Chapter 16: How Surmount Discouragement about the World?

    We should be encouraged by the fact that our problem is, not how to handle debility and feebleness, but how to handle power. I refuse to surrender to discouragement. Because I believe that there is Mind behind our lives here, Meaning in them, Purpose running through them, Destiny ahead of them, confidence and hope will not down. Such a situation as we face today, far from weakening that faith, calls it out, makes it seem all the more indispensable.

  • Chapter 17:<B> </B>How Distinguish Good from Bad Religion?

    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 man’s best. The worst thing is meaninglessness, seeing no sense or purpose in life, tedium, boredom, ennui, questioning whether anything matters. Existence is an exciting, stimulating confidence in the meaningfulness of life, its divine origin, significance, and destiny.

  • Chapter 18: How Handle Tragedy?

    What a strange paradox our life is! We dread tragedy, we deplore and abhor it, and yet there is nothing on earth which we admire more than a character that handles it triumphantly. Trouble and grief can add a new dimensions to life. There is no hardihood with no hardship; no fortitude without a fight; no sympathy without suffering; no patience without pain. We may not like the tragedies of our world, but that is the kind of world we live in.