The Children of Zion and the Sons of Greece
[This is taken from Albert Parker Fitch’s Preaching and Paganism.]
We are not using the term “humanism” in this essay in its strictly technical sense. Because we are not concerned with the history of thought merely, but also with its practical embodiments in various social organizations as well. So we mean by “humanism” not only those modes and systems of thought in which human interests predominate but also the present economic, political and ecclesiastical institutions which more or less consistently express them. Hence, the term as used will include concepts not always agreeing with each other, and sometimes only semi-related to the main stream of the movement. This need not trouble us. Strict intellectual consistency is a fascinating and impossible goal of probably dubious value. Moreover, it is this whole expression of the time spirit which bathes the sensitive personality of the preacher, persuading and moulding him quite as much by its derived and concrete manifestations in contemporary society as by its essential and abstract principles.
There are then two sets of media through which humanism has affected preaching. The first are philosophical and find their expression in a large body of literature which has been moulding thought and feeling for nearly four centuries. Humanism begins with the general abstract assumption that all which men can know, or need to know, are “natural” and human values; that they have no means of getting outside the inexorable circle of their own experience.
Much, of course, depends here upon the sense in which the word “experience” is used. The assumption need not necessarily be challenged except where, as is very often the case, an arbitrarily limited definition of experience is intended. From this general assumption flows the subjective theory of morals; from it is derived the conviction that the rationalistic values in religion are the only real, or at least demonstrable, ones; and hence from this comes the shifting of the seat of religious authority from “revelation” to experience. In so far as this is a correction of emphasis only, or the abandonment of a misleading term rather than the denial of one of the areas and modes of understanding, again we have no quarrel with it. But if it means an exclusion of the supersensuous sources of knowledge or the denial of the existence of absolute values as the source of our relative and subjective understanding, then it strikes at the heart of religion. Because the religious life is built on those factors of experience that lie above the strictly rational realm of consciousness just as the pagan view rests on primitive instincts that lie beneath it. Of course, in asserting the importance of these “supersensuous” values the religionist does not mean that they are beyond the reach of human appraisal or unrelated by their nature to the rest of our understanding. By the intuitive he does not mean the uncritical nor by the supersensuous the supernatural in the old and discredited sense of an arbitrary and miraculous revelation. Mysticism is not superstition, nor are the insights of the poet the whimsies of the mere impressionist. But he insists that the humanist, in his ordinary definition of experience, ignores or denies these superrational values. In opposition to him he rests his faith on that definition of experience which underlies Aristotle’s statement that “the intellect is dependent upon intuition for knowledge both of what is below and what is above itself.”
Now it is this first set of factors which are the more important. For the cause, as distinguished from the occasions, of our present religious scale of values is, like all major causes, not practical but ideal, and its roots are found far beneath the soil of the present in the beginnings of the modern age in the fourteenth century. It was then that our world was born; it is of the essence of that world that it arose out of indifference toward speculative thinking and unfaith in those concepts regarding the origin and destiny of mankind which speculative philosophy tried to express and prove.
From the first, then, humanistic leaders have not only frankly rejected the scholastic theologies, which had been the traditional expression of those absolute values with which the religious experience is chiefly concerned, but also ignored or rejected the existence of those values themselves. Thus Petrarch is generally considered the first of modern humanists. He not only speaks of Rome—meaning the whole semi-political, semi-ecclesiastical structure of dogmatic supernaturalism—as that “profane Babylon” but also reveals his rejection of the distinctively religious experience itself by characterizing as “an impudent wench” the Christian church. The attack is partly therefore on the faith in transcendent values which fixes man’s relative position by projecting him upon the screen of an infinite existence and which asserts that he has an absolute, that is, an other-than-human guide. Again Erasmus, in his Praise of Folly, denounces indiscriminately churches, priesthoods, dogmas, ethical values, the whole structure of organized religion, calling it those “foul smelling weeds of theology.” It was inevitable that such men as Erasmus and Thomas More should hold aloof from the Reformation, not, as has been sometimes asserted, from any lack of moral courage but because of intellectual conviction. They saw little to choose between Lutheran, Calvinistic and Romish dogmatism. They had rejected not only mediaeval ecclesiasticism but also that view of the world founded on supersensuous values, whose persistent intimations had produced the speculative and scholastic theologies. To them, in a quite literal sense, the proper study of mankind was man.
It is hardly necessary to speak here of the attitude towards the old “supernatural” religion taken by the English Deists of the last half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century. Here was the first definite struggle of the English church with a group of thinkers who, under the leadership of Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke and others, attempted to adapt humanistic philosophy to theological speculation, to establish the sufficiency of natural religion as opposed to revelation, and to deny the unique significance of the Old and New Testament Scriptures. The English Deists were not deep or comprehensive thinkers, but they were typically humanistic in that their interests were not mainly theological or religious but rather those of a general culture. They were inconsistent with their humanism in their doctrine of a personal God who was not only remote but separated from his universe, a deus ex machina who excluded the idea of immanence. While less influential in England, they had a powerful effect upon French and German thinking. Both Voltaire and Rousseau were rationalists and Deists to the end of their days and both were unwearied foes of any other-than-natural sources for our spiritual knowledge and religious values.
In Germany the humanistic movement continued under Herder and his younger contemporaries, Schiller and Goethe. Its historical horizon, racial and literary sympathies, broadened under their direction, moving farther and farther beyond the sources and areas of accepted religious ideas and practices. They led the revival of study of the Aryan languages and cultures; especially those of the Hellenes and the inhabitants of the Indian peninsula. They originated that critical and rather hostile scrutiny of Semitic ideas and values in present civilization, which plays no small part in the dilettante naturalism of the moment. Thus the nature and place of man, under the influence of these “uninspired” literatures and cultures, became more and more important as both his person and his position in the cosmos ceased to be interpreted either in those terms of the moral transcendence of deity, or of the helplessness and insignificance of his creatures, which inform both the Jewish-Christian Scriptures and the philosophic absolutism of the Catholic theologies.
But the humanism of the eighteenth century comes most closely to grips with the classic statements and concepts of religion in the critical philosophy of Kant. It is the intellectual current which rises in him which is finding its last multifarious and minute rivulets in the various doctrines of relativity, in pragmatism, the subjectivism of the neo-realists, and in the superior place generally ascribed by present thinking to value judgments as against existential ones. His central insistence is upon the impossibility of any knowledge of God as an objective reality. Speculative reason does indeed give us the idea of God but he denies that we have in the idea itself any ground for thinking that there is an objective reality corresponding to it. The idea he admits as necessitated by “the very nature of reason” but it serves a purely harmonizing office. It is here to give coherence and unity to the objects of the understanding, “to finish and crown the whole of human knowledge.” Experience of transcendence thus becomes impossible. As Professor McGiffert in The Modern Ideas of God says: “Subjectively considered, religion is the recognition of our duties as commands of God. When we do our duty we are virtuous; when we recognize it as commanded by God we are religious. The notion that there is anything we can do to please God except to live rightly is superstition. Moreover, to think that we can distinguish works of grace from works of nature, which is the essence of historic Christianity, or that we can detect the activity of heavenly influences is also superstition. All such supernaturalism lies beyond our ken. There are three common forms of superstition, all promoted by positive religion: the belief in miracles, the belief in mysteries, and the belief in the means of grace.” So prayer is a confession of weakness, not a source of strength.
Kant is more than once profoundly inconsistent with the extreme subjectivism of his theory of ideas as when he says in the Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Again he remarks, “The belief in a great and wise Author of the world has been supported entirely by the wonderful beauty, order and providence, everywhere displayed in nature.” Here the objective reality both of what is presented to our senses and what is conceived of in the mind, is, as though unconsciously, taken for granted. Thus while he contends for a practical theism, the very basis of his interest still rests in the conviction of a Being external to us and existing independent of our thought.
But his intention of making right conduct the essence of religion is typical of the limits of humanistic interests and perceptions. In making his division of reason into the theoretical and the practical, it is to the latter realm that he assigns morality and religion. Clearly this is genuine rationalism. I am not forgetting Kant’s great religious contribution. He was the son of devout German pietists and saturated in the literature of the Old Testament. It is to Amos, who may justly be called his spiritual father, that he owes the moral absoluteness of his categorical imperative, the reading of history as a moral order. He was following Amos when he took God out of the physical and put Him into the moral sphere and interpreted Him in the terms of purpose. But the doctrine of The Critique of Practical Reason is intended to negate those transcendent elements generally believed to be the distinctive portions of religion. God is not known to us as an objective being, an entity without ourselves. He is an idea, a belief, which gives meaning to our ethical life, a subjective necessity. He is a postulate of the moral will. To quote Professor McGiffert again: “We do not get God from the universe, we give Him to the universe. We read significance and moral purpose into it. We assume God, not to account for the world, but for the subjective need of realizing our highest good…. Religion becomes a creative act of the moral will just as knowledge is a creative act of the understanding.” Thus there are no ultimate values; at least we can know nothing of them; we have nothing to look to which is objective and changeless. The absolutism of the Categorical Imperative is a subjective one, bounded by ourselves, formed of our substance. Religion is not discovered, but self-created, a sort of sublime expediency. It can carry, then, no confident assertion as to the meaning and destiny of the universe as a whole.
Here, then, the nature of morality, the inspiration for character, the solution of human destiny, are not sought outside in some sort of cosmic relationship, but within, either in the experience of the superman, the genius or the hero, or, as later, in the collective experience and consciousness of the group. Thus this, too, throws man back upon himself, makes a new exaltation of personality in sharpest contrast to the scholastic doctrine of the futility and depravity of human nature. It produces the assertion of the sacred character of the individual human being. The conviction of the immeasurable worth of man is, of course, a characteristic teaching of Jesus; what it is important for the preacher to remember in humanism is the source, not the fact, of its estimate. With Jesus man’s is a derived greatness found in him as the child of the Eternal; in humanism, it is, so to speak, self-originated, born of present worth, not of sublime origin or shining destiny.
So man in the humanistic movement moves into the center of his own world, becomes himself the measuring rod about whom all other values are grouped. In the place of inspiration, or prophetic understanding, which carries the implications of a transcendent source of truth and goodness, we have a sharply limited, subjective wisdom and insight. The “thus saith the Lord” of the Hebrew prophet means nothing here. The humanist is, of course, confronted with the eternal question of origins, of the thing-in-itself, the question whose insistence makes the continuing worth of the absolutist speculations. He begs the question by answering it with an assertion, not an explanation. He meets it by an exaltation of human genius. Genius explains all sublime achievements and genius is, so to speak, its own fons et origo. Thus Diderot says: “Genius is the higher activity of the soul.” “Genius,” remarks Rousseau in a letter, “makes knowledge unnecessary.” And Kant defines genius as “the talent to discover that which cannot be taught or learned.” This appears to be more of an evasion than a definition! But the intent here is to refer all that seems to transcend mundane categories, man’s highest, his widest, his sublimest intuitions and achievements, back to himself; he is his own source of light and power.
Such an anthropocentric view of life and destiny in exalting man, of course, thereby liberated him, not merely from ecclesiastical domination, but also from those illusive fears and questionings, those remote and imaginative estimates of his own intended worth and those consequent exacting demands upon himself which are a part of the religious interpretation of life. Humanistic writing is full of the exulting sense of this emancipation. These superconsiderations do not belong in the world of experience as the humanist ordinarily conceives of it. Hence, man lives in an immensely contracted, but a very real and tangible world and within the small experimental circumference of it, he holds a far larger place (from one viewpoint, a far smaller one from another) than that of a finite creature caught in the snare of this world and yet a child of the Eternal, having infinite destinies. The humanist sees man as freed from the tyranny of this supernatural revelation and laws. He rejoices over man because now he stands,
“self-poised on manhood’s solid earth
Not forced to frame excuses for his birth,
Fed from within with all the strength he needs.”
It is this sense of independence which arouses in Goethe a perennial enthusiasm. It is the greatest bliss, he says, that the humanist won back for us. Henceforth, we must strive with all our power to keep it.
We have attempted this brief sketch of one of the chief sources of the contemporary thought movement, that we may realize the pit whence we were digged, the quarry from which many corner stones in the present edifice of civilization were dug. The preacher tends to underestimate the comprehensive character of the pervasive ideas, worked into many institutions and practices, which are continually impinging upon him and his message. They form a perpetual attrition, working silently and ceaselessly day and night, wearing away the distinctively religious conceptions of the community. Much of the vagueness and sentimentalism of present preaching, its uncritical impressionism, is due to the influence of the non-religious or, at least, the insufficiently religious character of the ruling ideas and motives outside the church which are impinging upon it, and upon the rest of the thinking of the moment.
Now, this abstract humanism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a considerable influence upon early American preaching. The latter part of the eighteenth century marked a breaking away from the Protestant scholasticism of the Reformation theology. The French Revolution accented and made operative, even across the Atlantic, the typical humanistic concepts of the rights of man and the sovereignty of the individual person. Skepticism and even atheism became a fashion in our infant republic. It was a mark of sophistication with many educated men to regard Christianity as not worthy of serious consideration. College students modestly admitted that they were infidels and with a delicious naïveté assumed the names of Voltaire, Thomas Paine and even of that notorious and notable egotist Rousseau. It is said that in 1795, on the first Sunday of President administration in Yale College, only three undergraduates remained after service to take the sacrament. The reasons were partly political, probably, but these themselves were grounded in the new philosophical, anti-religious attitude.
Of course, this affected the churches. There was a reaction from Protestant scholasticism within them which, later on, culminated in Unitarianism, Universalism and Arminianism. The most significant thing in the Unitarian movement was not its rejection of the Trinitarian speculation, but its positive contribution to the reassertion of Jesus’ doctrine of the worth and dignity of human nature. But it recovered that doctrine much more by the way of humanistic philosophy than by way of the teaching of the New Testament. I suppose the thing which has made the weakness of the Unitarian movement, its acknowledged lack of religious warmth and feeling, is due not to the place where it stands, but to the road by which it got there.
Yet, take it for all in all, the effect upon the preaching of the supernatural and speculative doctrines and insights of Christianity, was not in America as great as might be expected. Kant died in 1804, and Goethe in 1832, but only in the last sixty years has the preaching of the “evangelical” churches been fundamentally affected by the prevailing intellectual currents of the day. This is due, I think, to two causes. One was the nature of the German Reformation. It found preaching at a low ebb. Every great force, scholastic, popular, mystical, which had contributed to the splendor of the mediaeval pulpit had fallen into decay, and the widespread moral laxity of the clergy precluded spiritual insight. The Reformation, with its ethical and political interests, revived preaching and by the nature of these same interests fixed the limits and determined the direction within which it should develop. It is important to remember that Luther did not break with the old theological system. He continued his belief in an authority and revelation anterior, exterior and superior to man, merely shifting the locus of that authority from the Church to the Book. Thus he paved the way for Zwingli and the Protestant scholasticism which became more rigid and sterile than the Catholic which it succeeded. We usually regard the Reformation as a part of the Renaissance and hence included in the humanistic movement. Politically and religiously, it undoubtedly should be so regarded, for it was a chief factor in the renewal of German nationalism and its central doctrines of justification by faith, and the right of each separate believer to an unmediated access to the Highest, exalted the integrity and dignity of the individual. Inconsistently, however, it continued the old theological tradition. In the Lutheran system, says Paul de Lagarde, we see the Catholic scholastic structure standing untouched with the exception of a few loci. And Harnack, in the Dogmengeschichte calls it “a miserable duplication of the Catholic Church.”
Now, New England preaching, it is true, found its chief roots in Calvinism; Calvin, rather than Luther, was the religious leader of the Reformation outside Germany. But his system, also, is only the continuation of the ancient philosophy of the Christian faith originating with Augustine. He reduced it to order, expounded it with energy and consistency, but one has only to recall its major doctrines of the depravity of man, the atonement for sin, the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, to see how untouched it was by the characteristic postulates of the new humanism. And it was on his theology that New England preaching was founded. It was Calvin who, through Jonathan Edwards, the elder and the younger, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, Nathaniel Emmons, Nathaniel N. Taylor, determined the course of the New England pulpit.
The other reason for our relative immunity from humanistic influence is accidental and complementary merely. It is the mere fact of our physical isolation, which, until the last seventy-five years, quite largely shut off thinkers here from continental and English currents of thought and contributed to the brilliant, if sterile, provincialism of the New England theology.
It is, therefore, to the second set of media, which may be generally characterized as scientific and practical, that we now turn. These are the forces which apparently are most affecting Christian preaching at this moment. But it is important to remember that a large part of their influence is to be traced to the philosophic and ethical tendencies of the earlier humanistic movement which had set the scene for them, to which they are so sympathetic that we may assert that it is in them that their practical interests are grounded and by them that their scientific methods are reinforced. I divide this second group of media, for clearness, under three heads.
First comes the rise of the natural sciences. In 1859, Darwin published the Origin of Species and gave to the world the evolutionary hypothesis, foreshadowed by Goethe and other eighteenth-century thinkers, simultaneously formulated by Wallace and himself. Here is a theory, open to objections certainly, not yet conclusively demonstrated, but the most probable one which we yet possess, as to the method of the appearance and the continuance of life upon the planet. It conceives of creation as an unimaginably long and intricate development from the inorganic to the organic, from simple to complex forms of life. Like Kantianism and the humanistic movement generally, the evolutionary hypothesis springs from reasoned observation of man and nature, not from any a priori or speculative process. With this theory, long a regulative idea of our world, preaching was forced to come to some sort of an understanding. It strikes a powerful blow at the scholastic notion of a dichotomized universe divided between nature and supernature, divine and human. It reinforced humanism by minimizing, if not making unnecessary, the objective and external source and external interpretations of religions. It pushes back the initial creative act until it is lost in the mists and chaos of an unimaginably remote past. Meanwhile, creative energy, the very essence of transcendent life, is, as we know it, not transcendent at all, but working outward from within, a part of the process, not above and beyond it. The inevitable implication here is that God is sufficiently, if not exclusively, known through natural and human media. Science recognizes Him in the terms of its own categories as in and of His world, a part of all its ongoings and developments. But His creative life is indistinguishable from, if not identical with, its expressions. Here, then, is a practical obliteration of the line once so sharply drawn between the natural and the supernatural. Hence the demarcation between the divine and human into mutually exclusive states has disappeared.
This would seem, then, to wipe out also any knowledge of absolute values. Christian theism has interpreted God largely in static, final terms. The craving for the absolute in the human mind, as witnessed by the long course of the history of thought, as pathetically witnessed to in the mixture of chicanery, fanaticism and insight of the modern mystical and occult healing sects, is central and immeasurable. But God, found, if at all, in the terms of a present process, is not static and absolute, but dynamic and relative; indefinite, incomplete, not final. And man’s immense difference from Him, that sense of the immeasurable space between creator and created, is strangely contracted. The gulf between holiness and guiltiness tends also to disappear. For our life would appear to be plastic and indefinite, a process rather than a state, not open then to conclusive moral estimates; incomplete, not fallen; life an orderly process, hence not perverse but defensible; without known breaks or infringements, hence relatively normal and sufficiently intelligible.
A second factor was the rise of the humane sciences. In the seventh and eighth decades of the last century men were absorbed in the discovery of the nature and extent of the material universe. But beginning about 1890, interest swerved again toward man as its most revealing study and most significant inhabitant. Anthropology, ethnology, sociology, physical and functional psychology, came to the front. Especially the humane studies of political science and industrial economics were magnified because of the new and urgent problems born of an industrial civilization and a capitalistic state. The invention and perfection of the industrial machine had by now thoroughly dislocated former social groupings, made its own ethical standards and human problems. In the early days of the labor movement William Morris wrote, “we have become slaves of the monster to which invention has given birth.” In 1853, shortly after the introduction of the cotton gin into India, the Viceroy wrote: “The misery is scarcely paralleled in the history of trade.” (A large statement that!) “The bones of the cotton workers whiten the plains of India.”
But the temporary suffering caused by the immediate crowding out of cottage industry and the abrupt increase in production was insignificant beside the deeper influence, physical, moral, mental, of the machine in changing the permanent habitat and the entire mode of living for millions of human beings. It removed them from those healthy rural surroundings which preserve the half-primitive, half-poetic insight into the nature of things which comes from relative isolation and close contact with the soil, to the nervous tension, the amoral conditions, the airless, lightless ugliness of the early factory settlements. Here living conditions were not merely beastly; they were often bestial. The economic helplessness of the factory hands reduced them to essential slavery. They must live where the factory was, and could work only in one factory, for they could not afford to move. Hence they must obey their industrial master in every particular, since the raw material, the plant, the tools, the very roof that covered them, were all his! In this new human condition was a powerful reinforcement, from another angle of approach, of the humanistic impulse. Man’s interest in himself, which had been sometimes that of the dilettante, largely imaginative and even sentimental, was reinforced by man’s new distress and became concrete and scientific.
Thus man regarded himself and his own world with a new and urgent attention. The methods and secondary causes of his intellectual, emotional and volitional life began to be laid bare. The new situation revealed the immense part played in shaping the personality and the fate of the individual by inheritance and environment. The Freudian doctrine, which traces conduct and habit back to early or prenatal repressions, strengthens the interest in the physical and materialistic sources of character and conduct in human life. Behavioristic psychology, interpreting human nature in terms of observation and action, rather than analysis and value judgments, does the same. It tends to put the same emphasis upon the external and sensationalistic aspects of human experience.
That, then, which is a central force in religion, the sense of the inscrutability of human nature, the feeling of awe before the natural processes, what Paul called the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of godliness, tends to disappear. Wonder and confident curiosity succeed humility and awe. That which is of the essence of religion, the sense of helplessness coupled with the sense of responsibility, is stifled. Whatever else the humane sciences have done, they have deepened man’s fascinated and narrowing absorption in himself and given him apparent reason to believe that by analyzing the iron chain of cause and effect which binds the process and admitting that it permits no deflection or variation, he is making the further questions as to the origin, meaning and destiny of that process either futile or superfluous. So that, in brief, the check to speculative thinking and the repudiation of central metaphysical concepts, which the earlier movement brought about, has been accentuated and sealed by the humane sciences and the new and living problems offered them for practical solution. Thus the generation now ending has been carried beyond the point of combating ancient doctrines of God and man, to the place where it has become comparatively indifferent, rather than hostile, to any doctrine of God, so absorbed is it in the physical functions, the temporal needs and the material manifestations of human personality.
Finally, as the natural and humane sciences mark new steps in the expanding humanistic movement, so in these last days, critical scholarship, itself largely a product of the humanistic viewpoint, has added another factor to the group. The new methods of historical and literary criticism, of comparative investigation in religion and the other arts, have exerted a vast influence upon contemporary religious thought. They have not merely completed the breakdown of an arbitrary and fixed external authority and rendered finally invalid the notion of equal or verbal inspiration in sacred writings, but the present tendency, especially in comparative religion, is to seek the source of all so-called religious experience within the human consciousness; particularly to derive it all from group experience. Here, then, is a theory of religious origins which once more turns the spirit of man back upon itself. Robertson Smith, Jane Harrison, Durkheim, rejecting an earlier animistic theory, find the origin of religion not in contemplation of the natural world and in the intuitive perception of something more-than-world which lies behind it, but in the group experience whose heightened emotional intensity and nervous energy imparts to the one the exaltation of the many. Smith, in the Religion of the Semites, emphasizes, as the fundamental conception of ancient religion, “the solidarity of the gods and their worshipers as part of an organic society.” Durkheim goes beyond this. There are not at the beginning men and gods, but only the social group and the collective emotions and representations which are generated through membership in the group.
Here, then, is humanism again carried to the very heart of the citadel. Religion at its source contains no real perceptions of any extra-human force or person. What seemed to be such perceptions were only the felt participation of the individual in a collective consciousness which is superindividual, but not superhuman and always continuous with the individual consciousness. So that, whatever may or may not be true later, the beginning of man’s metaphysical interests, his cosmic consciousness, his more-than-human contacts, is simply his social experience, his collective emotions and representations. Thus Durkheim: “We are able to say, in sum, that the religious individual does not deceive himself when he believes in the existence of a moral power upon which he depends and from which he holds the larger portion of himself. That power exists; it is society. When the Australian feels within himself the surging of a life whose intensity surprises him, he is the dupe of no illusion; that exaltation is real, and it is really the product of forces that are external and superior to the individual.” Yes, but identical in kind and genesis with himself and his own race. To Leuba, in his Psychological Study of Religion, this has already become the accepted viewpoint. Whatever is enduring and significant in religion is merely an expression of man’s social consciousness and experience, his sense of participation in a common life. “Humanity, idealized and conceived as a manifestation of creative energy, possesses surprising qualifications for a source of religious inspiration.” Professor Overstreet, in “The Democratic Conception of God,” Hibbert Journal, volume XI, page 409, says: “It is this large figure, not simply of human but of cosmic society which is to yield our God of the future. There is no place in the future for an eternally perfect being and no need—society, democratic from end to end, can brook no such radical class distinction as that between a supreme being, favored with eternal and absolute perfection, and the mass of beings doomed to the lower ways of imperfect struggle.”
There is certainly a striking immediacy in such language. We leave for later treatment the question as to the historical validity of such an attitude. It certainly ignores some of the most distinguished and fruitful concepts of trained minds; it rules out of court what are to the majority of men real and precious factors in the religious experience. It would appear to be another instance, among the many, of the fallacy of identifying the part with the whole. But the effect of such pervasive thought currents, the more subtle and unfightable because indirect and disguised in popular appearance and influence, upon the ethical and spiritual temper of religious leaders, the very audacity of whose tasks puts them on the defensive, is vast and incalculable. At the worst, it drives man into a mechanicalized universe, with a resulting materialism of thought and life; at the best, it makes him a pragmatist with amiable but immediate objectives, just practical “results” as his guide and goal. Morality as, in Antigone’s noble phrase, “the unwritten law of heaven” sinks down and disappears. There is no room here for the Job who abhors himself and repents in dust and ashes nor for Plato’s One behind the Many; no perceptible room, in such a world, for any of the absolute values, the transcendent interests, the ethics of idealism, any eschatology, or for Christian theodicy. That which has been the typical contribution of the religious perceptions in the past, namely, the comprehensive vision of life and the world and time sub specie aeternitatis is here abandoned. Eternity is unreal or empty; we never heard the music of the spheres. We are facing at this moment a disintegrating age. Here is a prime reason for it. The spiritual solidarity of mankind under the humanistic interpretation of life and destiny is dissolving and breaking down. Humanism is ingenious and reasonable and clever but it is too limited; it doesn’t answer enough questions.
Before going on, in a future chapter, to discuss the question as to what kind of preaching such a world-view, seen from the Christian standpoint, needs, we are now to inquire what the effect of this humanistic movement upon Christian preaching has already been. That our preaching should have been profoundly influenced by it is inevitable. Religion is not apart from the rest of life. The very temperament of the speaker makes him peculiarly susceptible to the intellectual and spiritual movements about him. What, then, has humanism done to preaching? Has it worked to clarify and solidify the essence of the religious position? Or has preaching declined and become neutralized in religious quality under it?
First: it has profoundly affected Christian preaching about God. The contemporary sermon on Deity minimizes or leaves out divine transcendence; thus it starves one fundamental impulse in man—the need and desire to look up. Instead of this transcendence modern preaching emphasizes immanence, often to a naïve and ludicrous degree. God is the being who is like us. Under the influence of that monistic idealism, which is a derived philosophy of the humanistic impulse, preaching lays all the emphasis upon divine immanence in sharpest contrast either to the deistic transcendence of the eighteenth century or the separateness and aloofness of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, or of the classic Greek theologies of Christianity. God is, of course; that is, He is the informing principle in the natural and human universe and essentially one with it. Present preaching does not confess this identification but it evades rather than meets the logical pantheistic conclusion. So our preaching has to do with God in the common round of daily tasks; with sweeping a room to His glory; with adoration of His presence in a sunset and worship of Him in a star. Every bush’s aflame with Him; there are sermons in stones and poems in running brooks. Before us, even as behind, God is and all is well. We are filled with a sort of intoxication with this intimate and protective company of the Infinite; we are magnificently unabashed as we familiarly approach Him. “Closer is He than breathing; nearer than hands or feet.” Not then by denying or condemning or distrusting the world in which we live, not by asserting the differences between God and humanity do we understand Him. But by closest touch with nature do we find Him. By a superb paradox, not without value, yet equally ineffable in sentimentality and sublime in its impiety we say, beholding man, “that which is most human is most divine!”
That there is truth in such comfortable and affable preaching is obvious; that there is not much truth in it is obvious, too. To what extent, and in what ways, nature, red with tooth and claw, indifferent, ruthless, whimsical, can be called the expression of the Christian God, is not usually specifically stated. In what way man, just emerging from the horror, the shame, the futility of his last and greatest debauch of bloody self-destruction, can be called the chief medium of truth, holiness and beauty, the matrix of divinity, is not entirely manifest. But the fatal defect of such preaching is not that there is not, of course, a real identity between the world and its Maker, the soul and its Creator, but that the aspect of reality which this truth expresses is the one which has least religious value, is least distinctive in the spiritual experience. The religious nature is satisfied, and the springs of moral action are refreshed by dwelling on the “specialness” of God; men are brought back to themselves, not among their fellows and by identifying them with their fellows, but by lifting them to the secret place of the Most High. They need religiously not thousand-tongued nature, but to be kept secretly in His pavilion from the strife of tongues. It is the difference between God and men which makes men who know themselves trust Him. It is the “otherness,” not the sameness, which makes Him desirable and potent in the daily round of life. A purely ethical interest in God ceases to be ethical and becomes complacent; when we rule out the supraphenomenal we have shut the door on the chief strength of the higher life.
Second: modern preaching, under this same influence and to a yet greater degree, emphasizes the principle of identity, where we need that of difference, in its preaching about Jesus. He is still the most moving theme for the popular presentation of religion. But that is because He offers the most intelligible approach to that very “otherness” in the person of the godhead. His healing and reconciling influence over the heart of man—the way the human spirit expands and blossoms in His presence—is moving beyond expression to any observer, religious or irreligious. Each new crusade in the long strife for human betterment looks in sublime confidence to Him as its forerunner and defense. To what planes of common service, faith, magnanimous solicitude could He not lift the embittered, worldlyized men and women of this torn and distracted age, which is so desperately seeking its own life and thereby so inexorably losing it! But why is the heart subdued, the mind elevated, the will made tractable by Him? Why, because He is enough like us so that we know that He understands, has utter comprehension; and He is enough different from us so that we are willing to trust Him. In what lies the essence of the leadership of Jesus? He is not like us: therefore, we are willing to relinquish ourselves into His hands.
Now, that is only half the truth. But if I may use a paradox, it is the important half, the primary half. And it is just that essential element in the Christian experience of Jesus that modern preaching, under the humanistic impulse, is neglecting. Indeed, liberal preachers have largely ceased to sermonize about Him, just because it has become so easy! Humanism has made Jesus obvious, hence, relatively impotent. With its unified cosmos, its immanent God, its exalted humanity, the whole Christological problem has become trivial. It drops the cosmic approach to the person of Jesus in favor of the ethical. It does not approach Him from the side of God; we approach nothing from that side now; but from the side of man. Thus He is not so much a divine revelation as He is a human achievement. Humanity and divinity are one in essence. The Creator is distinguished from His creatures in multifarious differences of degree but not in kind. We do not see, then, in Christ, a perfect isolated God, joined to a perfect isolated man, in what were indeed the incredible terms of the older and superseded Christologies. But rather, He is the perfect revelation of the moral being, the character of God, in all those ways capable of expression or comprehension in human life, just because he is the highest manifestation of a humanity through which God has been forever expressing Himself in the world. For man is, so to speak, his own cosmic center; the greatest divine manifestation which we know. Granted, then, an ideal man, a complete moral being, and ipso facto we have our supreme revelation of God.
So runs the thrice familiar argument. Of course, we have gained something by it. We may drop gladly the old dualistic philosophy, and we must drop it, though I doubt if it is so easy to drop the dualistic experience which created it. But I beg to point out that, on the whole, we have lost more religiously than we have gained. For we have made Jesus easy to understand, not as He brings us up to His level, but as we have reduced Him to ours. Can we afford to do that? Bernard’s mystical line, “The love of Jesus, what it is, none but His loved ones know,” has small meaning here. The argument is very good humanism but it drops the word “Saviour” out of the vocabulary of faith. Oh, how many sermons since, let us say, 1890, have been preached on the text, “He that hath seen me, hath seen the Father.” And how uniformly the sermons have explained that the text means not that Jesus is like God, but that God is like Jesus—and we have already seen that Jesus is like us! One only has to state it all to see beneath its superficial reasonableness its appalling profanity!
Third: we may see the influence of humanism upon our preaching in the relinquishment of the goal of conversion. We are preaching to educate, not to save; to instruct, not to transform. Conversion may be gradual and half-unconscious, a long and normal process under favorable inheritance and with the culture of a Christian environment. Or it may be sudden and catastrophic, a violent change of emotional and volitional activity. When a man whose feeling has been repressed by sin and crusted over by deception, whose inner restlessness has been accumulating under the misery and impotence of a divided life, is brought into contact with Christian truth, he can only accept it through a volitional crisis, with its cleansing flood of penitence and confession and its blessed reward of the sense of pardon and peace and the relinquishment of the self into the divine hands. But one thing is true of either process in the Christian doctrine of conversion. It is not merely an achievement, although it is that; it is also a rescue. It cannot come about without faith, the “will to believe”; neither can it come about by that alone. Conversion is something we do; it is also something else, working within us, if we will let it, helping us to do; hence it is something done for us.
Now, this experience of conversion is passing out of Christian life and preaching under humanistic influence. We are accepting the Socratic dictum that knowledge is virtue. Hence we blur the distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian. Education supplants salvation. We bring the boys and girls into the church because they are safer there than outside it; and on the whole it is a good thing to do and really they belong there anyway. The church member is a man of the world, softened by Christian feeling. He is a kindly and amiable citizen and an honorable man; he has not been saved. But he knows the unwisdom of evil; if you know what is right you will do it. Intelligence needs no support from grace. It is strange that the church does not see that with this relinquishment of her insistence upon something that religion can do for a man that nothing else can attempt, she has thereby given up her real excuse for being, and that her peculiar and distinctive mission has gone. It is strange that she does not see that the humanism which, since it is at home in the world, can sometimes make there a classic hero, degenerates dreadfully and becomes unreal in a church where unskilled hands use it to make it a substitute for a Christian saint! But for how many efficient parish administrators, Y.M.C.A. secretaries, up-to-date preachers, character is conceived of as coming not by discipline but by expansion, not by salvation, but by activity. Social service solves everything without any reference to the troublesome fact that the value of the service will depend upon the quality of the servant. Salvation is a combination of intelligence and machinery. Sin is pure ignorance or just maladjustment to environment. All we need is to know what is right and wrong; the humane sciences will take care of that; and, then, have an advertising agent, a gymnasium, a committee on spiritual resources, a program, a conference, a drive for money, and behold, the Kingdom of God is among us!
Fourth, and most significant: it is to the humanistic impulse and its derived philosophies that we owe the individualistic ethics, the relative absence of the sense of moral responsibility for the social order which has, from the beginning, maimed and distorted Protestant Christianity. It was, perhaps, a consequence of the speculative and absolute philosophies of the mediaeval church that, since they endeavored to relate religion to the whole of the cosmos, its remotest and ultimate issues, so they conceived of its absoluteness as concerned with the whole of human experience, with every relation of organized society. Under their regulative ideas all human beings, not a selected number, had, not in themselves but because of the Divine Sacrifice, divine significance; reverence was had, not for supermen or captains of industry, but for every one of those for whom Christ died. There were no human institutions which were ends in themselves or more important than the men which created and served them. The Holy Catholic Church was the only institution which was so conceived; all others, social, political, economic, were means toward the end of the preservation and expression of human personality. Hence, the interest of the mediaeval church in social ethics and corporate values; hence, the axiom of the church’s control of, the believers’ responsibility for, the economic relations of society. An unjust distribution of goods, the withholding from the producer of his fair share of the wealth which he creates, profiteering, predatory riches—these were ranked under one term as avarice, and they were counted not among the venial offenses, like aberrations of the flesh, but avarice was considered one of the seven deadly sins of the spirit. The application of the ethics of Jesus to social control began to die out as humanism individualized Christian morals and as, under its influence, nationalism tended to supplant the international ecclesiastical order. The cynical and sordid maxim that business is business; that, in the economic sphere, the standards of the church are not operative and the responsibility of the church is not recognized—notions which are a chief heresy and an outstanding disgrace of nineteenth-century religion, from which we are only now painfully and slowly reacting—these may be traced back to the influence of humanism upon Christian thought and conduct.
In general, then, it seems to me abundantly clear that the humanistic movement has both limited and secularized Christian preaching. It dogmatically ignores supersensuous values; hence it has rationalized preaching hence it has made provincial its intellectual approach and treatment, narrowed and made mechanical its content. It has turned preaching away from speculative to practical themes. It was, perhaps, this mental and spiritual decline of the ministry to which a distinguished educator referred when he told a body of Congregational preachers that their sermons were marked by “intellectual frugality.” It is this which a great New England theologian-preacher, Dr. Gordon, means when he says “an indescribable pettiness, a mean kind of retail trade has taken possession of the preachers; they have substituted the mill-round for the sun-path.”
The whole world today tends toward a monstrous egotism. Man’s attention is centered on himself, his temporal salvation, his external prosperity. Preaching, yielding partly to the intellectual and partly to the practical environment, has tended to adopt the same secular scale of values, somewhat pietized and intensified, and to move within the same area of operation. That is why most preaching today deals with relations of men with men, not of men with God. Yet human relationships can only be determined in the light of ultimate ones. Most preaching instinctively avoids the definitely religious themes; deals with the ethical aspects of devotion; with conduct rather than with worship; with the effects, not the causes, the expression, not the essence of the religious life. Most college preaching chiefly amounts to informal talks on conduct; somewhat idealized discussions of public questions; exhortations to social service. When sermons do deal with ultimate sanctions they can hardly be called Christian. They are often stoical; self-control is exalted as an heroic achievement, as being self-authenticating, carrying its own reward. Or they are utilitarian, giving a sentimentalized or frankly shrewd doctrine of expediencies, the appeal to an exaggerated self-respect, enlightened self-interest, social responsibility. These are typical humanistic values; they are real and potent and legitimate. But they are not religious and they do not touch religious motives. The very difference between the humanist and the Christian lies here. To obey a principle is moral and admirable; to do good and be good because it pays is sensible; but to act from love of a person is a joyous ecstasy, a liberation of power; it alone transforms life with an ultimate and enduring goodness. Genuine Christian preaching makes its final appeal, not to fear, not to hope, not to future rewards and punishments, not to reason or prudence or benevolence. It makes its appeal to love, and that means that it calls men to devotion to a living Being, a Transcendence beyond and without us. For you cannot love a principle, or relinquish yourself to an idea. You must love another living Being. Which amounts to saying that humanism just because it is self-contained is self-condemned. It minimizes or ignores the living God, in His world, but not to be identified with it; beyond it and above it; loving it because it needs to be loved; blessing it because saving it. In so doing, it lays the axe at the very root of the tree of religion. Francis Xavier, in his greatest of all hymns, has stated once for all the essence of the Christian motive and the religious attitude:
“O Deus, ego amo te
Nec amo te ut salves me
Aut quia non amantes te
Aeternis punis igne.“Nee praemii illius spe
Sed sicut tu amasti me
Sic amo et amabo te
Solem, quia Rex meus est.”
What, then, has been the final effect of humanism upon preaching? It has tempted the preacher to depersonalize religion. And since love is the essence of personality, it has thereby stripped preaching of the emotional energy, of the universal human interests and the prophetic insight which only love can bestow. Over against this depersonalization, we must find some way to return to expressing the religious view and utilizing the religious power of the human spirit.