“The Credo of the Nonconformist”

By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
April 25, 1954

At the present time, when the pressure for conformity has greatly increased, it may be well to consider with unusual care the role that should be played by the constructive non-conformist. I say the constructive non-conformist because I want, right at the beginning, to disencumber our consideration of the handicap of what might be called neurotic non-conformity. There are people, and I think we have to admit it, who are what the psychologists would call compulsive non-conformists. Whatever other people want, they feel compelled to obstruct, just because other people want it. It is not, with them, a rational choice, but an expression of emotional immaturity.

It is the adult equivalent of a child’s refractoriness: a way of gaining attention or of feeling a sense of power. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to provide a general description of this kind of non-conformity except by saying that when we see into it we discover that it is destructive rather than creative, and it arises less from conviction and the quiet acceptance of a thought-through position than from the need to be different and conspicuous. In our present discussion we shall not deal with this type of non-conformity even though some of its elements any not be entirely absent from what I have called constructive non-conformity. People, of course, and all that they are, but sometimes we have to go by what they are in the main.

Let us begin with this: there are some matters in which it is an excellent thing to conform–traffic lights, for instance: and most, if not all, of the laws that provide for public safety. In the same way, we may as well conform to the laws of grammar; and to the multiplication tables; and to daylight saving time; and a great deal else which makes our more-or-less civilized life convenient. I think it would be a good thing, too, if we conformed much better than in fact we do to the conventions of courtesy, especially in driving our automobiles. When I need to turn to the left and the drivers of all the automobiles behind me begin blowing their horns to express their annoyance at the slight delay, I sometimes feel like getting out of my car and going to each one of them in turn to express my regret at the necessity of causing them a little inconvenience. But the, this might be going farther than I should in the direction of non-conformity. Nevertheless, I have not abandoned the idea: I am laying it aside for further consideration.

If, however, there are conformities that are wise and useful, there are also conformities which are the very opposite of wisdom and utility. And there are some that are actually vicious. It is these that we need to have in mind. We are being repeatedly told–and not, I think, by the majority but by a noisy minority–what we must think and do if we wish to be accepted as good Americans. Sometimes, it is not what we must do ourselves, but what we must tolerate without protest–or even applaud–in the behavior of others, unless we are willing to be regarded with suspicion.

Or again, in matters of public policy there are ideas that we must not ponder, possibilities that we must not study, even though the fate of all of us is involved in the decisions that are taken. In matters of nation security, there are those who have now come to feel a sort of proprietary right in other people’s destiny. We must conform to what they want to do–or leave undone–and go on conforming even when we do not know what they are doing–or failing to do.

In recent weeks, we have seen the pressure for conformity reach a point where it is all but incredible. I refer, of course, to the case of Dr. Oppenheimer. He was non-conformist in the decision to try to make a hydrogen bomb. He felt, presumably, some doubts concerning the feasibility of the project; he also felt, as I understand it, considerable moral revulsion at the thought of increasing still further the dimensions of destruction. He was wrong about the feasibility, and in my own view, wrong in being unwilling to recommend the attempt. It is an evil thing that such a weapon should be created; but it would be a still more evil thing if the Soviets had it and we lacked it. But this does not mean in the least that Dr. Oppenheimer’s view had no merit, or that there was no value in listening to him. His non-conformity, and his reasons for it, would at any time deserve a careful study.

But even the basic comprehension for this has been largely lost. A nuclear physicist is by necessity a non-conformist. He was that when he departed from the orthodox physics and began to experiment with the new ones. It was a daring departure. And it produced, for weal or woe, the atom bomb. Conformists could never have produced and atom bomb. It is the product, quite precisely, of adventurous non-conformity.

And if a man is a non-conformist as a physicist, he may very well be a non-conformist as a citizen and as a man. What should be thought about his non-conformity is open to discussion–but at least it should be understood. You cannot expect Mr. Einstein to act like other people; yet, you should remember that it was he who alerted President Roosevelt to the likelihood of Germany producing the atom bomb and using it to defeat us in World War II.

It would be easy to provide examples. However, all I wish to emphasize is that people who have made unusually independent use of their minds are likely to be independent in other ways–and because independent, different. And let me say again, it is precisely this quality of independence, this non-conformity, which is so rewarding in their work, as it was with the atomic physicists. Hitler banned them from Germany–or created conditions which they found unendurable so that they fled–and there fore lost their services. The pressure for conformity under a dictatorship meant that the dictatorship lost the war. It is this that has been lost sight of–and it is amazing that it has been lost sight of! As for denying Dr. Oppenheimer access to atomic secrets, it is like denying to Beethoven the scores of his own symphonies–yes, and like preventing him from writing further ones. There may, of course, be a reason for it, but until I hear it and am unexpectedly impressed, I shall remain skeptical.

But, to return to our main theme, the constructive non-conformist in any sphere is essential to us. To exclude him is to exclude the possibility of progress. It was the non-conformist in primitive days who saw that there was something better than violent reprisal who gave us the beginnings of law. It was the non-conformist who was repelled by human sacrifice who diminished the cruelties of religious ritual. It was the non-conformist in a multitude of ways who gave us the entirety of science and modern knowledge, and the possibility of democracy both as a way of governing and as a way of life. Always it has been the non-conformist who has opened up new territories and led the way to further stages of advance.

Minds that conform abjectly to prevailing patterns do very little to help us solve our human problems. For the problems emerge in any case–because nothing for very long is static. To meet them, new ways of thinking are necessary, new measures, new devices, and these can only come by challenging existing beliefs and established patterns. Actually, therefore, the non-conformists should be welcomed, irrespective of whether we are likely to agree with him. We do not know–until he has been heard–whether we agree with him. It certainly looks to me as though the stalemate that now exists in the world, preventing negotiations for security and peace, will never be broken by existing ways of thinking merely. These ways of thinking have hardened very dangerously. They can be just as great a threat as the agencies of physical destruction. It is counted non-conformist–even flagrantly heretical–to suppose that there may some time be a way of negotiating with the Russians. Whether there is a way, I do not know–but I think that we ought to keep trying to find out.

I do rather suppose that the Russian people do not want to be incinerated by hydrogen bombs any more than we do, and perhaps their leaders are not entirely stupid. So far as we, ourselves, are concerned, I am inclined to think that, once we understand the matter, we might prefer to live in a world with a lot of live communists to get along with, rather than perish with a lot of dead ones. It is a fantastic fact to accept, but I think it is a fact that to think along these lines is now regarded as decidedly non-conformists.

Yet, to pursue the matter further, if the Russian leaders are still Marxists, they must believe, as they have all along, that the capitalist world will fall apart without the need of trying to destroy it by force. They must also therefore believe that the one thing they have to fear is a war that would eliminate them and prevent their exploitation of the capitalist collapse. So they ought to be afraid of war–modern war with its immensity’s of devastation. If, on the other hand, they have ceased to be Marxists and think that capitalist countries may manage to avoid collapse, there is an incentive for working out some sort of peaceful arrangement with them. What I mean by this suggestion is that fresh thinking–non-conformists t5o prevailing patterns–is highly necessary. It is true that it may not succeed; but it is even more true that our present approach is not succeeding; it should therefore be obvious that we should be thinking in ways that are new.

Of course, actually, the non-conformist, whether in matters of this sort or any other, is not just the antagonist of the more conforming viewpoint; he may represent something that the conforming person has almost allowed himself to consider and then has set aside. At least, this is sometimes so. As Emerson has put it, “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts.” That is what the non-conformist restores to us–whether we wish it or not: our own rejected thoughts.

And this is the reason that the non-conformist can make the rest of the people so uncomfortable. It is not because he thinks differently–but because they see that they might, too. And they are afraid of it.

Here we come to something that Jesus very plainly demonstrated. He was a non-conformist–as he was bound to be, since he was a spiritual and ethical genius. He attacked prevailing views. He stated his own views clearly and emphatically. And the people who heard him recognized that they were hearing voices out of their own minds and memories. When he said that we should love and not hate, he said something that his hearers already recognized as a thought which they themselves had almost entertained. So with most else that he said. When he spoke, he was reinforced by insights that his hearers had rejected.

Religion has always been in need of non-conformists. And never more than now. The old ways are not meeting the new needs, and they cannot meet them. There must be fresh thinking, adventurous and yet deeply realistic thinking–which is only possible if the old patterns are challenged and the weary, unsufficing creeds of yesterday discarded. Yet, the non-conformists is greatly feared and misunderstood.

His position, sometimes, is like that of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and remembering that he had wanted to save that city–and that he had known how it could be saved; but he was rejected: rejected as dangerous precisely because he was pointing the way to safety.

Nevertheless, it is now, while non-conformity is feared and mistrusted, that non-conformists must become more bold, more persistent, more resolute. They are needed. But they must know their true province and the authentic ways in which they can fulfill their duty.

That is why I speak of the credo of the non-conformist. Which I think should run something like this: “I believe that I must be my true self, honestly revealing my opinions. And I believe that I should act, not in the way that is most expected or easier, but as I myself, think to be right. And I further believe that I must do all in my power to make my true self my best self and be devoted to the ains that inwardly command me.”

Something like that. For most people, most of the time, are not their real selves, but selves that they assume each day like a mask that conceals them. When they wake, they put on this mask, and only rarely at unguarded moments do they partly remove it. And everyone they know wears a similar mask. This has always been so, of course, but today the mask is fastened on more tightly. For to be seen as we are may lead some one to believe that we are some sort of a risk! There is no future for us on that basis. The masks must come off. We must show our true faces–and not be afraid if they are the faces of non-conformists.

But can we succeed? That is the question most likely to be asked. And the answer is that we do not know until we try. But we can remember that history has demonstrated that something can be done by non-conformists.

As I have already said, Jesus was a non-conformist. So were his first disciples. But when Christianity was adopted by the declining Roman Empire, it was not the religion of Jesus. It was very different, and became the new conformity.

Then, did the purpose of Jesus fail? No, because as soon as his gospel was submerged in the religion of the majority, non-conformists arose to demand that the gospel of Jesus be given its proper place. And because there were these non-conformists, the gospel of Jesus was never lost, even though it was not fully recognized. That is the mission of the non-conformist. He is not likely–ever–to prevail completely. But neither is he likely to be shorn of influence.

But, perhaps we say, in these latter days, the position of the non-conformist has become much more precarious. He can be wiped out–as, apparently he is in Communist countries, and as he was by Hitler. But this is unnecessary pessimism. There is no evidence that non-conformity does not exist in Communist countries; on the contrary, immense efforts are needed to keep it suppressed. Hitler failed at last, and so may all the other oppressors.

As for ourselves, with our heritage of freedom–a heritage disdained by some, it is true, but still our heritage–we should have more faith; and far more courage. There will be non-conformists. Never doubt it. And there is no greater privilege than to be counted with their numbers.

There will be non-conformists who will deny that arrogant and ambitious men are fit judges of their patriotism. There will be non-conformists who will not keep silence when the great traditions of our national life are stained. And there will be non-conformists in religion–upholding its purity and truth, and speaking out for its justice and its charity. There will be those–now as at any time–who will serve the righteousness they find in their own consensus and with no other court of appeal than the honest verdicts of their own minds.

What greater service is there to be rendered? What higher cause to serve? Than to reject the shams and the disguises and the venerable hypocrisies and live for the true and the real and the genuinely good?

Let that be our resolve: that we shall be our true selves, honestly and simply what we are; and try to make our true selves our best selves in devotion to the aims that inwardly command us.

Let us be ready to gain the world for the things that we believe in–or, if need be, for the sake of these same things, to lose it. Knowing that at the least, we cannot wholly lose. For truth is not vanquished when the time of judgment comes. And in history, the time of judgment comes. And in history, the time of judgment comes repeatedly.

Then let us follow our convictions–openly, valiantly, without concealment–simply because they are convictions–and let us leave the rest to God.

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