“Religion Can Make Sense”

By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
November 27, 1949

More and more people–so we are told–are returning to religion. the former trend is being reversed. The erstwhile skeptic, instead of believing, as he once did, that religion is becoming obsolete, is now distinctly hopeful of it. More than that, he feels the need of it. Life without religion has become too much for him. The modern age has disappointed him. The brave new world he dreamed of in his youth has not materialized; its prophecies have all proved false. The revolt against religion–where has it brought us? he asks himself. And what was it that somewhere along the line was overlooked: It must have been important, for without it all things else have gone astray. Perhaps it was something religious.

And thus thinking, he takes up again the questions that he thought were settled. Maybe there is a God. Maybe there’s something in prayer. Maybe one should go to church. Not, of course, that what you get in church is what you really want. But then, what do you want? You just don’t know. You can’t describe it. All you know is that you need it–and you think it is religion.

But what can one make of churches? They do such queer things. They don’t get together. They are on all sides of every question. Some of them are on the wrong side of every question–or so it almost seems. You pick up your newspaper and read that a council of bishops says thus-and-so. It makes no sense. They are against decent things: not very progressive things but just ordinary, necessary things, like freedom of discussion on the radio; or limiting the size of a family. They ask people to believe creeds that they cannot possibly believe. They say they speak for God. Does God know it? Is what they say religion? Or have the bishops lost their religion, too?

Then again, here’s a report of a conference of ministers. Protestant ministers. Nice fellows. Serious minded. They sound at times as though they might have the answer. But look at the resolutions they pass! Only by believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can the world be saved! What do they mean? They never define their terms. How do you believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Suppose you said you would try it. What is it that you would try? What does it mean in clear, plain language? If Jesus Christ is Lord of all these churchmen, how do they come to have such differing opinions? On everything from the family to the United Nations? Some of them are in favor of scrapping the United Nations and having a world federation; some think it would be nice to have both. Of which group is Jesus Christ Lord? Some are in favor of state subsidies for parochial schools; others are sure that such a proposal is iniquitous. Of which group is Jesus Christ the Savior? Some of them declare that because Jesus Christ is Lord, they are pacifists. Others deny that pacifism has any such sanction. In what way, therefore, does the lordship of Christ operate on these churchmen? Their differences of viewpoint are just the same as other people’s–precisely as though Jesus Christ had nothing whatever to do with the matter. And so it is with almost everything else–except the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord. About this they are almost unanimous. Unanimous but meaningless. Is this religion?

And what does it mean when we are told that the world can be saved only by supernatural intervention? If such a thing is possible, it sounds like a good idea; for clearly, all the other agencies that are trying to save the world are having a hard time of it. A supernatural one may be just the thing . But what is a supernatural agency? What is the meaning of the words? In what way are we to expect the supernatural to intervene? What will it do when it intervenes? Will something smite open the heavens and come down out of the sky? If so, will it bring its own organization with it? Or will it work through existing mechanisms, such as Congress and the United Nations? What will be its attitude to the Kremlin? Will it have a solution for the food and population problem? Will it recognize the present rulers of China? Will its methods be democratic or will it operate as a benevolent dictatorship? If the latter, what becomes of human freedom? Can mankind be saved by overawing it? Is the divine plan one of intimidation? What will it mean to be saved when the world is being run by the dictates of celestial magistrates whom, necessarily, we must obey? Granted the world might be orderly and its affairs well run, but what would it be aimed towards? What would it mean in terms of values? How would it advance mankind spiritually? No matter how exalted our masters, they would be our masters; even a dictatorship of angels would be a dictatorship; so would we not be slaves? And if this interpretation is too literal, what would the meaning be if it were not literal? No one seems to say, except that something miraculous is to be expected. Something that would take the world out of our hands. So it amounts to the same thing.

Is this religion? If so, it is contrary to what the ethics of religion teach us. For unless the soul of man is free, even right and wrong can have no meaning since the soul would not be free to choose between them. Only the free can choose. To invade this freedom, even by supernatural coercion, would destroy the soul.

The promise of supernatural intervention is therefore not only a venture in improbabilities, but wrong in essence, immoral, irreligious. It is the surrender of responsibility, the soul’s wish to cease to be a soul. It is asking God to dehumanize us, to take away our freedom, to divest us of the power to choose, because we no longer want to be men. It is asking him to take back the world because we are tired of the effort of trying to run it. We want to be puppets; want to be slaves.

Is it to this that the skeptic must return when he comes back to religion? To theologians confused and churches confounded? Must he subject himself to bishops whose pronouncements make no sense? Or try to follow churchmen going in opposite directions? Or in default of that, embrace a neo-orthodoxy the aim of which is the surrender of the soul?

Or, if he takes the matter at a rather simpler level and tries to return to religion no matter what its difficulties so long as there is solace in it, some easement of tension, some word of hope, something that somehow he might manage to believe in, must he be constantly confronted with absurdities? Must he go to church to hear a very ordinary mind expounding with unwavering self-confidence what God has confided to it about the ultimate mysteries of the universe? Must he be told, in detail and with complete assurance, exactly what heaven is like and what he has to do to go there? And must he listen with docility week after week to what an intelligent child of six would instantly identify as fairy stories?

Indeed, as to this last I recently received from a child of six, namely my own younger daughter, a description of heaven in which she did not for a moment believe but which, nevertheless, so far as she was concerned put the entire matter in a nutshell. “Heaven,” she said, “is a place where, when you meet somebody, you say, ‘Hello, there! I didn’t know you were dead!'” If only some of the preachers would compress their speculations into similar compass! And then deal, not with folklore but with religion!

For, as it seems to me, the skeptic, in his return to religion, must often be having a rather disappointing experience. Just at the very moment when he has begun to believe that religion after all may make sense, he finds it just as cluttered up with nonsense as on the day he turned his back on it. In these circumstances, he does–and I imagine is likely to go on doing–one of several things according to his individual character and temperament. He may capitulate and join a church to whose authority he does not, in his heart, submit. He may succeed in pretending that he does submit. If he is tired enough–and there are a lot of tired people in the world today–the pretence may be convincing, at least for a while. He may think he has found peace; and except for the very deep unrest which he keeps buried far below the level of his consciousness, perhaps he has. I have met such people. I recognize them by the frightened look which comes into their eyes if anything is said that threatens to awake that deep unrest. They have found peace, they say. Perhaps they have. I do not know. All that I know is that peace has not found them. When true peace comes to a life it comes because that life is wide open to the world and its struggle and there is room for peace to seed itself and grow. The peace that you have to guard lest the east wind blight it or the north wind blow it away is just a sickly graft, not a self-rooted plant, and only superficially does it resemble the genuine article.

But many a skeptic knows this, or at least senses it. So that he may make one of the other choices. He may join a church –or attend one–in the hope that some time he will find something that he recognizes as religion. Whether he succeeds or not depends, of course, not only upon whether there is enough religion in the church in question, but also upon whether this man is able to recognize it when he sees it. Instead of joining a church, however, he may elect to seek religion for himself. He may look for it in books, with varying degrees of success. Or he may even seek it in the life he lives, in his own experience, his own thought, his own motives, his own inner conflicts, his own awareness–and if he does this, he is very likely to find it. But if none of these methods attract him–and sometimes that is what happens after a while–he may give up religion and try popular psychology or one of the more comfortable sorts of pessimism, or, quite possibly, communism.
But actually, unless it be by personal circumstances, he is not driven to these alternatives. Religion is not indissolubly wedded to nonsense. Nor is it necessarily encumbered by irresolution or irrelevancy. Nor need it be confused. It is true that religion has to do at last with final questions to which no honest mind can give an easy answer; with hidden things and with mysteries. But it does not start there. It starts with life and the way we live it. And it makes sense.

It starts, for instance, when a man faces a question to which he does not know the answer, and says to himself and to whoever asks him, “I do not know.” In such a statement there is more religion than in all the creeds the churchmen ever wrote. For that is exactly what the churchmen faced: questions to which they did not know the answer; but they were not honest enough to admit it. If they had prefaced the creeds by saying, “We do not know the answers but we think the following statements may be useful; they represent a summary of our present beliefs and we offer them to all others to whom they may be helpful,” that would have been religious. And there would have been no persecutions. Heresy is only persecuted because orthodoxy is fearful of its own pretensions, is not sure of itself; it fears in others the same doubt that it cannot quite suppress within itself. And so, I say, religion begins when a man says he does not know.

But I said “begins.” If religion goes no farther than that, it merely rakes the dead leaves off the soil and leaves it bare without planting anything. Or, in plainer words, there are questions which can be answered. Truth, for instance, is not an answer to the ultimate questions until it has become familiar as the answer to immediate questions. Some people think this level of truth is beneath consideration when we are discussing important elements in religion. Ordinary truth they think they can take for granted. What they are interested in is ultimate truth, the truth of far-off things that lift their eyes towards horizons. They are mistaken: very badly mistaken .

Even to tell the truth for a single day–the truth, I mean, of ordinary things: the things that pass through our minds, or are spoken in conversation, casually, or uttered as the day progresses, from encounter to encounter–even to tell this kind of truth for a single day is beyond the capacity of any person in this church this morning. To achieve such a thing would take not only heroic efforts but also considerable practice. What distinguished, for example, such a person as Socrates was the closeness of his approximation of it. He thought truth–rigorously–until it became a habit. And he spoke it, until less truthful people found it unendurable and made him drink the hemlock. Jesus did the same thing, although at times more mystically. He would not make a thing seem other than it was. And with this much practice in the truth of day to day, such men as Socrates and Jesus achieved their insights into deeper truth. They knew there was truth in the world because there was truth in themselves. They also knew that truth never compromises, never accommodates itself to wish or preference. Truth is what is really so: what is really so in day to day perceptions, and gradually it becomes what is really so in the universe. If anyone will approach truth in this way, learning to live with it, he will presently find that he is not only living with it but living from it and by it, and suddenly he is aware, as though the sun had blazed at midnight, that truth is an ultimate radiance lighting the mind to God.

But mark me! It will not be easy. For very few people can even think the truth when they find it disagreeable. This is so in the most elementary way. How many people who act foolishly, or childishly, or meanly, are willing to admit it? To set aside excuses and admit it? Even to themselves? No, what they do is admit–eventually–enough of the truth to make excuses plausible. They can’t quite swallow unadulterated lies, even of their own manufacture, so they mix in enough of truth to make lies palatable. No diplomacy in the world is practiced so adroitly, so suavely, so resourcefully, and at the same time so unscrupulously, as the diplomacy we practice on ourselves. Whoever would have religion make sense, therefore, and whose expectation of religion is that it will bring him to the truth, must know that truth will only shine in the sky for those who light her lanterns on the ground.*

But then, it is not a matter of truth alone, but of everything else expressed in thought or word or deed. How can we know whether justice is an ultimate principle unless we speak justly and act justly– until we know what justice really is? To most people, most of the time, it is little more than a word. When they ask such questions as whether God is just, or whether justice is truly a law of life, they are playing with words as a child learning algebra might play with symbols. What the words–or the symbols–finally refer to, they do not know. Nor can they know except by experience. What would anyone know of music who had never heard the sound of it but knew it only as written notation? A trained musician can, it is true, tell something of the quality of a composition by reading the score, but this is only because he has listened to music, because he has made music, because he knows it as sound. If he knew nothing more than he could tell by reading the score, he would be playing with symbols, and would know them only as symbols. Which is exactly the way many people play with words like justice–or even with a word like God. They are dealing in symbols, not realities. And I say again, to seek the answer to the great questions that such words propound and to seek it with any hope of arriving at it, we must first do some practicing. We must learn what justice is by just words and deeds.

And so with all things else. So with love. What do people mean when they ask whether God is love? What do they mean by love? What have they known as love? That clutching, grasping possessiveness that would absorb another to oneself? Or the vanity, perhaps, of being loved?—Love means so many things: so very little, sometimes, and at other times so much. In English, we have to make do with the one word; there are other words, of course, but we use this one in place of any of them. We “love” our parents, our spouses, our children, our friends, our country, our way of life; and we “love” Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, and Coca-Cola, baseball, chewing gum, and sirloin steak, cooked rare. We “love” the new styles in dresses, the latest detective story, Christmas decorations, a fire in the hearth on a cold evening, the way a baby blows bubbles, the color blue, flying in a DC6, baked grapefruit, and God…Or at any rate, we hope that God “loves” us. But what do we mean by love? What do we mean by it when we ask concerning the love of God? Do we mean a sort of parental affection towards us, indulgent, perhaps, and ready to pamper us? Something protective, something that regards us as wonderful and precious, in spite of the fact that most of the time we quite obviously are not? Do we mean anything more than the projection of our own kinds of love–the easy kind–into a giant celestial counterpart? If so, is it not quite evidently nonsense? To the New Testament writers, it would not only have been nonsense, it would have been blasphemy. In the language they used, the koine Greek, they had a more precise vocabulary. But even so, they ask the question, “How can a man love God whom he hath not seen, if he love not his brother whom he hath seen?” In other words, how can he reach the greatest love of all if he has not even learned that love can be unselfish?

The kind of love the apostle, Paul, was concerned with: unselfish and yet unforced, kind but not indulgent, compassionate but with no hint of condescension, gentle but uncompromising, tender but inflexible in aim and purpose…this kind of love is a kind the modern age has almost forgotten. Love, we have been told, is for self-realization, and we hoped it was true. But seldom, if ever, were there more selves in the world that have failed of realization. And so they are trying harder, and becoming less self-realized every day. The cult has failed, and already the priests of the cult are whining that they must not be blamed; and saying defiantly that the cult must continue. It must continue, apparently, until everyone pursues self-realization, and there is not a truly self-realized person left in the world.

It is useless supposing that the emotional side of religion is available to people who are enervated and debilitated by a cult like this. To find love in the universe, you must first of all find enough of it in yourself. If it were otherwise, not only religion, but the universe, too, would not make sense. You cannot find a thing that you would not recognize if you saw it. And you cannot find love until you know what it is. If you could, the world would be built on nonsense; and so would religion. Which, of course, is the very delusion that blinds us to reality. For we want the world to be built on nonsense; and although it would do us no good, and we know it, we want the same thing of religion. But the fact is that not only can religion make sense. It must. If it doesn’t, it is counterfeit. Whatever fails to make sense is not religion.

Or as Jesus once said, “Do men grow grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” And he marveled at them, the people of his generation, because that was the very thing they were determined to do. As the people of this generation are. Crying out that they seek religion.

Prayer: O God of our unbelief, make clearer to us the meaning of our unbelieving. Amen.
* At this point in the sermon, a topical reference was made to circumstances leading to the loss of men of integrity in the service of the government. The reference was covered by newspaper reports the following day and is omitted here because the same matter is more fully treated in Dr. Davies’ recent sermon, “Mr. Forrestal Left a Warning.”

Comments are closed.

  • Support Our Work for Justice, Hope, Multi-Generational Multicultural Community, and Religious Education
    in Prince George's County and beyond