Social Service and the Churches
THE most significant thing about the religious development of the last generation or two has been the revolt of the Protestant world from Protestantism. Protestantism to-day is not Protestant at all. If it may not be called anti-Protestant, it at least deserves the name of neo-Protestant. The religion believed and practiced in those churches which were founded by such men as Calvin, Luther, Knox, Wesley, and Campbell is fast becoming more different from anything those worthies would have espoused than their religion was different from Catholic Christianity.
The difference between a Catholic and an old-time Protestant was that the former sought to transform human souls by making them members of a super-worldly society which was at one with God, while the latter sought to make them over by bringing them individually, through private acts of faith, to be atune with Him. The fundamental aim of both was the same, — the saving of human souls out of the world. Both looked upon things earthly as things transitory. Both found their real values beyond the grave. Both looked forward to the coming of Christ in judgment upon the earth. When they prayed, ’Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven,’ both thought of the Christ suddenly arriving to revolutionize the cosmos in a great day of readjustment. Neither of them had the faintest thought of the world’s being gradually improved bit by bit, until it should become Christ’s Kingdom. They differed in method; but, Catholic and Protestant alike, from Christ’s time until very lately indeed, Christians agreed in being supernaturalists and millenarians.
Neo-Protestantism, however, repudiates these universal Christian agreements. Any one who is at all familiar with the popular theology of the day knows that people of this sort have no desire to save any one from the clutches of the world, because they think that the clutches of the world are really Nature’s motherly embraces; that they despise ‘other-worldliness’ above all things; that they quite ignore, or else allegorically explain away, the sudden coming of Christ, ‘as a thief in the night’; that they expect the Kingdom of Heaven to come upon the earth by process of evolution. Millenarianism in any real sense they repudiate, and supernaturalism is, at best, suspect.
The development of this neo-Protestantism is yet in process. Only clearheaded men like ex-President Eliot of Harvard, Professor Foster of the University of Chicago, and a few others, have carried the metamorphosis to its logical conclusions. The great mass of Protestants are in all probability still unaware that their churches have largely repudiated, or even drifted away from, the religion of their fathers. The fact that this drifting is going on, going on rapidly, and going on among Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Campbellites, Congregationalists, in fact every Protestant denomination, including the ‘broad-church’ wing of the Anglican communion, is perfectly plain to those who, as Catholics, look upon the Protestant world from the outside. It tends to make these Catholics even more chary than they used to be of fraternally associating with their Protestant fellow Christians.
Church unity among the various fast-becoming neo-Protestant denominations is doubtless much nearer than it used to be; but the union of Catholics on the one hand with members of the various Protestant denominations on the other, is becoming every day an increasingly impossible thing. The ignoring of this plain fact is the pathetic thing about most of the common talk one hears from the enthusiasts on Christian unity. ‘How can two walk together unless they be agreed?’ queried the prophet in old time. There were — are, indeed — many things which tended to unite a Catholic and a Protestant, many common hopes, many common beliefs. But what can ever unite Catholicism and neo-Protestantism, — the one, supernatural, millenarian, other-worldly; the other, naturalistic, evolutionary, this-worldly?
The great difference in the religious world of to-day, then, is not between Catholicism and Protestantism. The quarrel that counts is between supernatural religion, both Catholic and Protestant, on the one hand, and natural religion, neo-Protestantism, on the other. It is a quarrel between religion based upon the revolutionary conversion of human souls and religion based upon the evolutionary transformation of human society.
There seems to be a quite general assumption on the part of neo-Protestants that all of science, all of history, is on their side. They wax not only indignant but often contemptuous at the nonsensical mummery of those who go on celebrating spiritual mysteries, when, so they say, it is as plain as a pike-staff that the world is drawing nearer to heaven by natural evolution, aided now and then by a little benevolent legislation, and is quite independent of any supernatural aid. If this were indeed true, all that supernaturalists could do would be to acknowledge themselves beaten by the facts, and retire, more or less gracefully, from public view. Unfortunately for this simple solution of the difficulty, however, the facts are by no means all on the side of the ‘new religion.’ The wide-awake lay-student of human affairs is apt often to agree with the late Alfred Russel Wallace that this is one of the worst, and not the best, of all the ages. After all our evolution, we of the twentieth century have not attained to the beauty which characterized Grecian culture, or to the administrative efficiency which marked Rome, or to the political justice of the ancient Asiatic states, or to the spiritual fervor of either the classic Egyptians or the Hebrews.
Even our material achievements are very little, if any, in advance of those of many a folk of long ago. To many people it is not at all plain that the fourteenth century, when men lived short and violent lives and had a glorious good time doing it, was any worse than the twentieth century, when men live longer, and possibly in greater physical comfort, but are largely bored by having to live at all. It is anything but sure, so many a careful observer of life to-day thinks, that the world of men as a whole is any further along toward the making of a perfect humanity than it was three or four thousand years ago. The supernaturalist need not yet hide his head. The evidence does not utterly overwhelm him. That man needs supernatural grace ever to develop to the heights of personality, the perfection of humanity, is still, to say the least, a debatable position.
When we come to look at those church activities whereby neo-Protestantism is seeking self-expression, we find that the greater part of them may be grouped under the name of ‘Social Service.' Time was when the success of any church was estimated according to the number of souls who humbled themselves before the Heavenly Father and became citizens of that Kingdom which is eternal. Nowadays, however, when churches seek to justify their existence they tell of the number of social clubs, penny lunches for working girls, gymnasium classes, men’s clubs, kindergartens, penny savings banks, children’s story hours, sewing schools, manual-training classes for little boys, and so forth, housed under their roofs, managed by their clergy and lay workers, and financed by their people. Instead of sermons dealing with eternal verities we are apt to hear from the pulpits of the really ‘advanced ’ churches continual treatments of local politics, the vice question, prison reform, and so on. It used to be thought that a guild-house was an excellent adjunct to a church. Now it is quite commonly assumed that possibly a church is a right pretty thing to have attached to a guild house.
To a neo-Protestant these ameliorative social activities seem eminently the church’s business. Indeed to many of them, if one may judge from their writings, these seem to be the church’s only legitimate business. This attitude is the natural outgrowth of their non-supernatural beliefs. If the universe is going on evolving for countless millions of years, if the human race is to go on approaching perfection, little by little, with the passing centuries, then the way to do the will of God, the way to assist in the perfection of humanity, is by exactly the sort of activity in which neo-Protestantism is so greatly enthusiastic. As long as one believes that man is by nature good, that things are constantly growing better, and that if we only keep on following the natural course of development all will be well, then one will look upon the activities of social service as the acme of religious devotions.
Now, none of these things that have just been mentioned are in themselves anything but good. Every one surely would like to see all the little children fed and taught and given a place to play in. Working girls need cheap lunches, and social activities for every one are things much to be commended. To the Catholic, however, or to the oldtime Protestant, it seems that in furthering none of these good things lies the church’s real business.
In the opinion of the believer in supernatural religion, the imparting of spiritual assistance to man, whereby he may be transformed from a creature merely of environment, a mere product of the world, into a creature of spirituality, who shares with that Christ who overcame the world, is the true function of the church. As a cure for the sordid selfishness of man, which is the cause of all of those social festerings which ‘social service’ seeks to mollify, supernaturalism holds aloft a crucified Christ, despised by the world but glorified by God, murdered by the world but raised to eternal life and alive for evermore. It bids man touch his radiant personality, in prayer, in sacrament, and from Him derive strength to go out into the world and defy it, battle with it, master it, revolutionize it. It says to him, ‘Here you touch perfect humanity and manifest divinity. Go forth, and in God’s name let your lives show it, in your fearlessness, in transcendental fire, in burning love that brooks neither cant nor injustice, in revolutionary zeal.’
To a supernaturalist it seems a thing not to admire, but rather to wax wrathful about, that many churches, whose real purpose is thus to sow spiritual dynamite and to encourage men to explode it, should be found substituting for this a combination of inexpert sociological teaching and usually inefficient social - settlement activity. One might as well admire the spectacle of Joan of Arc forsaking her place at the head of France’s armies while she devoted her time to mending her soldiers’ hosiery.
As a matter of fact, however, many churches are abandoning their work of inspiring men with a sublime vision and of imparting to them that supernatural power which will enable them to regard the vision as of such supreme importance that the world’s inducements toward selfishness will be as nothing. Many of them are substituting for it mere ameliorative and reformatory social service. And already, so it seems to some who look on, they are beginning to pay the penalty. When the churches completely metamorphose themselves from supernatural agencies into natural agencies, at that instant they sign their own death-warrants. They deny the only reason they have for being. There is not — the writer thinks he speaks advisedly — a single bit of so-called social-service work now being attempted by the churches which is not being done more efficiently by someone else. Work for the bodies of boys, for instance, is far better done by the Y.M.C.A. Work for their general culture, and for that of girls, too, for that matter, is more efficiently handled in the public schools. Club work, both for children and for adults, is better carried on in the small parks and in the social settlements. Lunch clubs and other similar ventures are now furnished, where there is real need for them, by private enterprise. So one might go through the whole list. There is none of this work which could not be done as well, and in many instances far better, by other agencies, even though all the churches were to cease to exist to-morrow.
In this situation any thinking man is bound to ask himself, ‘If this sort of philanthropic endeavor is all the churches are good for, and if it all can be done as well or better by other existing agencies, where is the usefulness of the churches and their religion at all?’ It is really somewhat hard to see how neo-Protestant churches can justify their own perpetuation. If, however, there is a great vision of perfected humanity, as shown forth in the person of Christ, to be held aloft before the world, if there is a supernatural store of help to be furnished to struggling men, then indeed the churches may claim an adequate excuse for their existence.
There are many quite intelligent churchmen to-day who believe that the contempt in which the churches are held nowadays is largely due to their failure to rise to their real duty. The demand that the churches dabble in social service is not nearly so general as many of the neo-Protestant ecclesiologists suppose. There is among us to-day a great soul-hunger. Let the churches cease their dilettante concern with sociological minutise, and, as did the prophets, as did the Christ, let them once more lift their mighty voice in a cry for spiritual regeneration and revolution. Let them reason once more of ‘righteousness and temperance and judgment to come,’ and it is just possible that the world, like Felix of old, will cease to yawn and begin to tremble.