What College Did to My Religion

"What happens to this nicely rationalized system of religious beliefs when scientific notions are superimposed upon them?"
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To say that college does something to the average student's religion is to state a truth which will be conceded by anyone who has given the matter a moment's thought. Nine young men and women out of ten who will receive their degrees this June would probably admit, if they were called to testify, that education has acted as a poison to their faith. In many instances the virus generated by the reasoning processes induces only mild distemper of skepticism, but in others it works like an acid, eating its way into the bump of credulity until in the end this estimable organ is completely corroded. Devout parents and clergymen have frequently observed this phenomenon and deplored it. When they discuss it, however, as they often do, they betray a common failure to understand the intellectual chemistry which has produced this wholesale apostasy of the younger generation.

In these pages I propose to show how higher education reacts upon faith by describing my own religious crisis just as it occurred while I was in college. At the time, I had good reason to sift my doubts with unusual care. When I entered Harvard in the fall of 1924, I was not only a Christian, I was also an avowed candidate for the ministry. Then for four years I underwent a process of mental readjustment which shook my little world to its foundations. Through it all only one thing was clear to me: if I could reconcile religion with intelligence, I knew that I could go on into my chosen career fortified by the experience; if I could not, every consideration of honor would compel me to make other plans. In the end I gave up the ministry.

Because my crisis was so acute, I know what fundamental questions underlie the intellectual reorientation which has become an inevitable part of the college curriculum for every thinking student. From my own experience I can demonstrate why it is that education so often spells the end of orthodoxy.

I.

The environment in which I grew up was that of the typical middle-class American home just after the turn of the century. Queen Victoria had been dead five years when I came into the world, but her spirit lived on and was the tutelary genius of my childhood and youth.

I was born a good Presbyterian, and, fittingly enough, predestination played an important role in my early life. Both of my parents were gentle, unaffected, devoted Christians, and my father was an elder in the church. We lived in a small city of the Middle West, on the fringe of what H.L. Mencken calls 'the Bible Belt.' Long before I could be aware of it myself, the double accident of parentage and geography had shaped me for the service of God.

Our neighborhood was made up of families like mine. All social life was centred in the church and its activities. Our minister, who was an intimate friend of the family, was an upright old Scotsman, a living monument to all the Christian virtues. He had served our parish almost as long as anybody could remember, and his never-failing kindliness and charity made him universally beloved.

My earliest distinct recollection is of family prayers. This was a regular feature of our daily life. After supper we would retire to the library, where my father, with wife and children gathered about him, would read a chapter from the Scriptures. Psalms and Proverbs were his favorite books, and he repeated them so often that I soon knew them by heart. After the reading came prayers, during which each little event of the day would be rehearsed and we would give thanks to God for all the good things we had enjoyed.

It was natural that a child brought up in such a home should early come to think of the God who ruled over it, whose presence was so imminently felt in every department of daily life, as one of his most intimate acquaintances. He was very real, this God of my childhood; as real as my father, and in fact quite like him. There was nothing sinister about Him, nothing to incite fear—except, of course, when I disobeyed Him. He was merely the head of the world as my father was head of our household. The ways of both were often inscrutable to me, but I never doubted their ultimate wisdom and their concern for my own good.

By the time I came to the age of reason the system under which I had grown up had implanted in my mind certain clear ideas about the universe and my place in it. The world was created by God as a laboratory for testing human beings. In the Bible He had revealed His commandments, which were distinct, direct, and admitted of no argument. Obedience to these injunctions was virtue, disobedience sin. The one meant honor and happiness and life everlasting; the other was the way of shame and disgrace in this world, and led to eternal torments in the world to come.

God, however, was more than a moralist. He was also an engineer. The world which He had fashioned was not an automatic mechanism. It had been set going in the beginning by its Creator, and he, like a good mechanic, had been tinkering with it ever since. The forces that moved it were direct manifestations of His power. 'The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.' If He could save men from their sins, He could also protect them against accidents, diseases, and the shafts of their enemies. Faith and good works, then, were not only the way of the soul's salvation, they were also the best kind of insurance against the stings of fortune while one lived.

These religious concepts were laid down in the Scriptures and were supported by a kind of evidence in everyday life. God was constantly being moved by the prayers of the just to repeat in our day the miracles He had performed in ancient times. Everyone who had eyes could see it for himself. Did not our pastor often intercede for the recovery of the sick, and did they not usually get well? Did he not pray every Sunday that the President of the United States would be given wisdom to lead the affairs of the nation, and was not our prosperity the manifest answer? It was all very simple and all very right, and surely the way of the transgressor was hard.

But, you say, these were the ideas of a child. True, and the child got them from his parents, who shared them item by item with the neighbors, who held the same beliefs in common with one hundred million other people in all the Middletowns of America.

II.

It would hardly be possible to exaggerate the importance of a wonder-working God in this Christian scheme of things which I took for granted with the air I breathed. Innumerable stories from the Bible, moreover, indicate that such a Deity was also taken for granted by every one of the Scriptural heroes from Adam down to John of Patmos. Through all the centuries of religious history this idea has persisted, which would seem to indicate that a God who kicks over the traces of natural law and upsets the normal sequence of cause and effect occupies an important place—if not, indeed, the central place—in Christian cosmology.

I am well aware that in certain churches to-day even the clergy are disposed to pass lightly over the miracles. This tendency, however, is wholly confined to the more liberal churches, whose communicants are sophisticated people. Such parishes are not really representative of Christianity, for the obvious reason that their members are not representative of the rank and file of humanity. Sophisticated folk, if they go to church at all, tend to do it as a matter of form and fashion; they are moved by no strong convictions.

To find the original God of Christianity still resplendent in all His glory, still hurling His thunderbolts and making no concessions to rationalism, one should go preferably to a Roman Catholic Church—to the shrine, say, of Saint Anne de Beaupre or Our Lady of Lourdes. There one comes into the awful presence of a real God, who heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, makes the crippled walk, rewards the just, damns the wicked, and in all the vicissitudes of life is able to give tangible evidence of His power in answer to prayer. And the same Deity, less colorful, perhaps, but no less real, will be found among the Baptists, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, and every other sect of Protestantism.

This was the God of my childhood. And He still reigns in undimmed majesty over the lives of millions, whose supplications continue to move Him just as effectively as they did in the days of Abraham. Here, for example, is a testimonial taken from the Chicago Tribune of August 28 last:—

"The steeple of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, at 2330 North Halsted Street, was struck by lightning and set afire. One hundred and seventy-five theological students, residents of a near-by dormitory, rushed into the street in a downpour of rain to help the firemen fight the blaze. Dr. John Timothy Stone, president of the Seminary, heard the crash when the steeple was struck. He rushed out into the storm and called upon the students who were helping to fight the blaze to pray. Dr. Stone and his students knelt on the rain-soaked grass and offered a prayer for the safety of the building. The firemen were unable to get into the steeple, and by the time they had raised a fire tower and trained a hose on the fire an hour later the rain had put out the blaze."

It is hardly necessary to point out that Dr. Stone's action was entirely consistent with his beliefs as a good Presbyterian. In his moment of danger he did what every religious man or woman does instinctively under similar circumstances: he appealed to the wonder-working God who presides over the Christian universe. And I dare say the good Doctor has already used the incident to point the moral in some stirring sermon.

I emphasize the importance of this God of magic because He is the source of most of the difficulties with which the churches now find themselves beset. They cannot give Him up and remain Christian; they cannot keep Him and retain the loyalty of educated people. It is a critical dilemma indeed. I was soon to face it in my own life, but at the time of which I write I had no suspicion that it existed.

III.

I arrived at the age of eighteen comfortably adjusted to the Christian universe in which all things work together for good to them that love God. The example set by my family, and indeed by the entire community in which we lived, convinced me of the truth and justice of the divine plan. As I began to think seriously of what I should do with my life, everything pointed to the ministry as the ideal solution. Christian living was the way of happiness. And what better use could any man make of his powers than to devote them to the propagation of truth, so that others who had been denied it might be led to share its beneficent effects? The decision hardly called for conscious effort.

So in due course I went before the Presbytery of the church, where, to the delight of my parents, I was accepted as a candidate for the ministry. The church to which we belonged published a little quarterly, and the next issue carried my picture with this word of explanation: 'Philip E. Wentworth, who came before Presbytery last spring, will start his college work this fall preparatory to entering the Christian ministry.'

The question was: What college? Without going into the detailed considerations that influenced my judgment in this matter, suffice it to say that I finally settled upon Harvard. My father was not a college graduate, but he was bent on giving me the advantages of formal education which he had lacked, and he was satisfied to leave the choice to me. But I met unexpected resistance when I sought the advice of our pastor.

He was uneasy when he learned that I was thinking of going to Harvard. Of course it was a fine university, but the Unitarians had smirched it. He reminded me that the Unitarian Church was the only Protestant denomination from which transfers of membership were not freely accepted by the Presbyterians. Before a Unitarian could be welcomed into our communion he had to be closely examined, for the title of his sect was a denial of the Trinity. Harvard, the minister said, had been the Sorbonne of Unitarianism, and I should run a grave risk of learning false doctrine if I went there.

Instead of flying in the face of Providence, I should do better, he said, to consider his own college. It was a small institution in Missouri, founded and supervised by the synod of our church. It had educated many eminent Presbyterian ministers. I could go there knowing that I should be safe from all the insidious temptations of rationalism.

He urged me eloquently, but I stood my ground. When I went before Presbytery I had sworn allegiance to truth and I did not think it would prove to be as frail a vessel as the good dominie's counsel implied. I suspected that it might turn out, on closer acquaintance, to be a little too broad to fit into any narrow creed. I was not primarily interested in dogma anyhow. Sufficient unto the seminary would be the evils thereof. First, I would widen my general knowledge. Then, even if it should be necessary to modify some of my doctrines, I felt certain that the fundamental verities of religion would remain impregnable.

So to Harvard I went. On a September evening in 1924, I called to say good-bye to the old minister, who, throughout his long friendship with the family, had been almost a second father to me. In the quiet of his study he knelt beside me and offered up a fervent petition to God to make me diligent in the pursuit of truth. Dear faithful soul! Within a year he was dead and was spared the pain of learning that his parting prayer was being answered—in a sense the irony of which he could never have understood.

IV.

Before I went to college I was thoroughly at home in a universe which revolved about the central figure of an omnipotent Deity. In Cambridge I was suddenly plunged into another world. I found myself breathing a wholly different atmosphere. My teachers spoke a new language; their words were familiar enough, but the import of them was strange to me. It was essentially a difference in attitude and point of view.

The change was first brought home to me in the study of history. To my mind the rise of Christianity out of the ashes of imperial Rome had seemed the material evidence of a transcendental truth—a revelation of the hand of God at work in the affairs of men. Not so to my professors. All events in history were manifestations of cause and effect operating upon the natural level. The institutions of society evolved according to orderly processes. Religion was itself subject to these processes. I shall never forget one lecture from the fierce, bloodthirsty Yahweh, tribal Deity of a few Semitic nomads, through successive stages until He finally emerged in the New Testament as the gentle, merciful, forgiving Father of all mankind.

In the course of time the impact of new knowledge, and especially knowledge of science and the scientific method, wrought great havoc with my original ideas. All things, it seemed, were subject to the laws of nature. This concept supplied my mind with a wholly new pattern into which my religious beliefs refused to fit. In such an orderly universe there seemed to be no place for a wonder-working God. He would be an outlaw, unthinkable and impossible. The bottom dropped out of my world, and I wrestled with myself in a futile attempt to patch it up.

What, then, about morals? Without an omnipotent Deity to reward virtue and punish evil, was 'the good life' only an illusion? I could not believe it, yet I could think of no satisfactory answer. Life had lost its meaning. I was desolate.

Perhaps, though, I could still rehabilitate God by setting Him up as the First Cause—the moving power behind natural law. But there was small comfort in this thought. A God who had created the world and then left it to govern itself by natural law had hedged Himself about by barriers through which even He could not break. Prayers could not move Him. Though He might exist, He could not be of service to man. Obviously such a God would be too remote, too inaccessible, for the purposes of religion.

I saw, too, that the Modernists were troubled by these same difficulties. In their haste to strike up a compromise with the intellectuals, they were trying hard to make a self-respecting Deity out of the nebulous What-Is-It of Eddington and Millikan. It seemed to me that they had fallen between two stools. I studied philosophy and read further about this First Cause. Then I began to marvel at the disingenuousness of the human mind when, unable to imagine how the world began, but demanding some explanation of the inexplicable, it can arbitrarily select three letters from the alphabet and call g-o-d an answer. I preferred to think that we know more about such matters when we admit we know nothing than when we resort to such palpable self-deception.

While I was debating these problems so basic to my religious beliefs, the controversy between Fundamentalists and Modernists was coming to a head, and the impending Scopes trial in Tennessee was shocking the conscience of thoughtful men everywhere. These events helped to clarify my thinking. I saw that the battle had been joined between religion and intelligence. Was faith, then, simply a defense of ignorance, a substitute for thinking?

In the summer of 1925, I followed the proceedings at Dayton with intense interest, and one aspect of the dispute over evolution struck me particularly. Learned scientists and liberal clergy-men were brought to testify for the defense. Their evidence was not admitted at the trial, as I recall it, but all of them gave out statements to the press, and they were unanimous in saying that there was no real conflict between religion and science. This struck me as a downright evasion of the issue. The quarrel was not between religion and science in the abstract. The pious legislators of Tennessee had taken it upon themselves to protect one specific and clearly stated postulate of Christianity against the equally concrete and definite theory of evolution. What was the conflict here?

The controversy raged, as everyone knows, over the first chapter of Genesis. Now why should religious folk set such store by that text? In explaining how the world was created in six days, the story of Genesis clearly established God in the central conning tower of the universe and conferred upon Him the omnipotent powers. He needed to control the mechanism. Thus it affirmed the first great postulate of Christianity: An all-powerful God rules over the world of His creation. But that is not all. From this premise is derived a corollary of the first importance to religion: Man is dependent for his safety in this world and his salvation in the next upon the God who made him.

Here, then, is the religious significance of the Biblical story of creation. The lawmakers of Tennessee maintained, therefore, that the story was fundamental to Christianity, and in this it would appear that they were better theologians (however tenuous their claim to greatness in the law) than the liberal clergymen who tried to refute them. For the Christian religion rests in large part upon the foundation of those assumptions laid down in the first chapter of Genesis. The moral code is directly derived from the special relationship there established between God and man.

Now what happens to this nicely rationalized system of religious beliefs when scientific notions are superimposed upon them? The God of Christianity becomes enclosed in a circle of natural law from which He cannot escape. He is deprived of His freedom to interfere with the normal sequence of cause and effect. He is no longer able to play the role of Cosmic Policeman, meting out vengeance and punishment to evildoers and offering protection and rewards to the just. The elaborate sanctions which religion has built up to enforce its code vanish into thin air.

Thus, in the field of action, a conflict of primary importance is set up between Christianity and scientific ideas. Mystic rites, sacrifice, supplication, and prayer are typical modes of religious behavior, and they are conditioned by religious beliefs. People who have oriented themselves to a scientific universe go about their affairs in other ways. Dr. John Timothy Stone and the firemen approached their common problem differently.

Having reached these conclusions, I realized that if I was to continue to believe in the good life I should have to look beyond the teachings of orthodoxy for my reasons. The supernatural had become meaningless. No longer able to lean upon the gods, I must learn to stand alone.

V.

It so happened that I stayed in the East each summer vacation and had not been home since I first entered Harvard as a freshman. Meanwhile, I had written innumerable letters to my parents, acquainting them with all the successive changes which my ideas had undergone. They were sorely troubled. At first they contented themselves with giving me well-intentioned advice to pray and read my Bible constantly. If I did this, my doubts would surely pass, for God was testing me and would not desert me if I proved steadfast. When at last, toward the end of my sophomore year, I wrote them that prayer had lost its meaning, they concluded that they would have to take heroic measures to save me from myself. I received a long letter from my father.

He was now convinced, he said, that my going to Harvard had been a ghastly mistake. Two years of it threatened to destroy the faith which had been instilled into me from birth. If I continued in my present course, he could never forgive himself for failing to heed the advice of our old pastor, who had foreseen exactly what had happened to me. 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' He was convinced, therefore, that it would be best for me to plan on not returning to Cambridge in the fall. If I preferred, he would be willing to let me do nothing at all the next year; I could stay at home and get my bearings anew. After that I could make a fresh start and go on with my studies at the Presbyterian college in Missouri, which he had now concluded was the proper place for me. Of course I was no longer a child to be governed wholly by others; I should have to make my own decisions and take the consequences. But in this important matter he urged me to consider well and be guided by his maturer judgment.

Needless to say, this letter was very disturbing to me. I could understand and sympathize with my father's feelings. But, much as I regretted to displease him, I could not ruthlessly suppress my own convictions. I wrote him to this effect and begged him to allow me to complete the studies which I had begun. I had seen enough of a progressive university and its methods of stimulating students to think for themselves to know that I should never be able to bear the hothouse environment of a denominational college. After the interchange of several letters my father finally capitulated, although he said it went sorely against his conscience.

That third year at Harvard was much less distressing to my peace of mind than the first two had been. The uncertainties which new knowledge had bred no longer paralyzed me. Other certainties began to take form as I set about building up a tenable philosophy of my own. By the end of my junior year these ideas had begun to shake down and adjust themselves to the new pattern which my mind had accepted.

It was now out of the question for me to entertain any hope that I might be able to reconcile my new philosophy of life with those religious assumptions which I had formerly taken for granted. I could not become a Christian minister. Instead, I found myself strongly attracted toward an academic career. But I was still enrolled as a candidate for holy orders, and it was incumbent upon me to notify Presbytery of my withdrawal.

Back home our old pastor was dead, and a younger man who had formerly assisted him had taken his place. So to him I wrote, in April 1927, outlining the change in my beliefs just as I have explained it here, and asking him to lay the matter before Presbytery. Within a few days I received his answer. His letter was cordial and tolerant, but it demonstrated so conclusively the impotence of the Church to deal with, or even to understand, the problem of my generation that I shall quote it in full.

April 16,1927

MY DEAR PHILIP,

Your father had frequently talked with me about your difficulties. I was therefore not unprepared for your letter, although the Philip who speaks in these pages is an altogether different Philip from the one who left us less than three years ago.

I need not tell you how sorry I am that you have had to go through this crisis. Most of us, some time or other in our college lives, have had to face the very problems that are yours. If a man thinks at all, such questions are bound to torment him sooner or later. Knowing you as I do, I am sure that you have been honest in facing them. Still, it is the way a man answers that really matters; his doubts may always either make him or break him.

I shall not attempt to debate the points which you have raised. You ought to know already how faith can move such mountains of doubt as the unguided reason may build up. There is only one thought that I should like to place before you. As you have been looking at the fact of Christianity from the point of view of a personal God, have you been absolutely fair in seeking the proof on both sides? By that I mean, have you been reading your Bible, praying, and trying to believe, or have you just taken the external view that it cannot be so, and tried to prove that by your thought and reading? Not one of us could keep his faith in any vital matter if he listened only to those who argue against it. Religion isn't a question of logic or reason, although there is logic in it and a man has to have a reason for the faith that is within him.

However, I am not going to harass you with a sermon. I want you to know that whatever you do and wherever you go I still count you one of my true friends. Whether it means anything to you or not, I am going to pray for Gods' blessing upon you, that He may lead you out into the fullest life. You are still numbered here as one of ours, and always will be. If at any time I can serve you in any way, you have only to let me know. And be assured of this—that with my hand goes my heart.

Yours faithfully, etc.

There is something very touching in the manifest sincerity of such an appeal. But what good is it to urge a man to pray when the whole system of religious conceptions has lost its validity for him?

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