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.
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.
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.