Should Smith Go to Church?

An anonymous author explores the dilemma of an average American going to church in an industrial age.
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Should Smith go to Church? asks Mr. Meredith Nicholson in the June Atlantic. I think he should not. Now Smith, as described by Mr. Nicholson, 'is one of the best of fellows,—an average twentieth-century American, diligent in business, a kind husband and father, and in politics anxious to vote for the best interests of the Country.' Smith was brought up in a Christian household, was taught to repeat the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments and he learned his Catechism, so that he has the advantages of a Christian training. He has retained the kindness, the charity, and the goodwill that are taught in all religions, but without announcing it or even publicly admitting it, he has, in his heart, renounced Christian dogma. He feels a little mean, and just a bit ashamed of himself, to stand up and repeat the Apostles' Creed. He does not publish his thoughts about these things, but he knows his own mind.

Let us examine the processes of his mind a little more closely. If you take a child and repeat again and again, continually, certain statements, they are likely in time to assume the form of truth to him. The constant demand of the Roman Catholic Church that it be permitted to supervise the instruction of its children is witness of this, It knows very well that certain processes of thought may become fixed so that they abide in many well-ordered minds as final conclusions, and that it is then difficult to disturb them. It is, therefore, far easier and more profitable in results to make converts of children and hold them to this habit of thought than to persuade adults that any branch of organized Christianity is the True Faith. All ease of conversion falls away, however, if the adult has not been trained to consider certain dicta as true without the privilege of questioning, or if the automatic connection in his mind between ideas of dogma and truth have become loosened or atrophied. This automatic connection is the basis of faith, and when it is seriously disturbed, so that the whole subject is approached de novo, the question of the reasonableness of dogma is frequently considered for the first time, and the dogma then appears as true or false. With Smith it does not appear to be true.

And yet, he is tied to the Church by ties innumerable. His father and mother were diligent in attendance and firm in the faith. It has touched him at all the vital points of life: as a child it gave him his name, as a youth he was welcomed into its fellowship, it joined him in wedlock to his wife, it baptized his children, it performed the last rites over the bodies of those nearest and dearest to him; it has been close to him at every intimate and tender point in such a way that it seems almost impossible that he should ever turn from it. Nothing could touch him so closely: at birth, in childhood, in youth, at his marriage, in the naming of his children, and, at the end of life, for him and his own.

The Church has laid fast hold of these things. They are the emotional points which religion claims. They are the times when we need help, and this very help is the benefit of clergy, the office of the priest. We can get along without him, but under stress of emotion we can not think very well, and we want someone with us. Surely the judge, the umpire in a court of law, has not the training for this, yet he is the only substitute we can call, and he will not officiate at funerals.  

Now, Christianity is the only religion that Smith really knows. There are the Jews, but they do not want him, and he is no more bound to the Old Testament than to the New. Then there are the Unitarians—a few of them—but they seem very like the ­others, and there is so much in Christianity that appeals to him that he does not protest against it; he simply lets it pass, he does not want to stand in the way of any good that it may do. On every hand he finds Christian men and women doing what he himself calls God's work. This consists in working in a thousand ways for human betterment, and in this Smith works with them, so long as it is not made the propaganda for dogma. As soon as the Church is brought in, Smith drops out. Nevertheless, when he dies, his wife will call in the minister and he will have a Christian burial, in which his glorious resurrection will be assured because of the faith which he really did not have.

He does not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, although it is better for him not to deny it; the consequences of offending the Church are sometimes serious. Moreover the order of things occasionally requires the offices of a priest or minister. He does not think that his soul is eternally damned, because he does not think that Christ, the Jesus of history, is one and the same with God, the Father Almighty, or that he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. His idea of the life ever lasting is no idea at all; he does not profess to understand eternity, so he does not know whether he believes in it or not He does not believe in the Holy Catholic Church, and as for the communion of saints, he hopes for it, if it means that he may meet his loved ones after death, but he is not animated by faith in it; he only hopes for it. And he does not believe in the resurrection of the body.

Well, once in a while, Smith goes to Church, and it is usually to his hurt. He hears a great deal of reasoning that seems strained to him, in which he is urged to believe many things to be true which in his heart he does not believe to he true. Now Smith tries to be honest. He does not confuse single facts with the whole truth. His ideas of the truth are in no wise pedantic, but he has a sense that the truth involves all the facts in their proper relation on the one hand, and a mind capable of grasping and coordinating them on the other. He does not live up to this ideal, and he knows that he could not reach it if he tried. With large example of his friends and neighbors, he does not try always to get all the facts about a subject into their true relation if this should operate to the disadvantage of his affairs. But he has no sense of a Larger Truth that is not so.

He also hears in church that without Christ all is as nothin­­g—and this has set him to thinking seriously to find out what his attitude really is in the matter. He has re-read his Bible, more especially the Sermon on the Mount, and even there he finds the rule does not work with him. He finds, for instance, that he must resist evil, that he must take thought of the morrow, that he must not give without discrimination. These are not offered as indicating that Smith is right, they merely indicate his point of view. You see the automatic assent that whatever is in the Bible is true, and that whatever Jesus said is of necessity right, has gone out of him. The emotional glow has faded away from dogma. He not only feels free to think alone and independently, but this appeals to him as his duty. He is doing his best, and he feels that he must be honest whether he is right or not.

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