The Evangelicals' Dilemma


THE advanced elements in the Evangelical Protestant churches are in trouble. Their Unitarian brethren say these Evangelical Progressives deserve their trouble, for they have halted between two opinions. The Fundamentalists prosecute a frontal attack of ecclesiastical and political pressure designed to wipe out this ‘defeatism’ which attempts a ‘both-and’ when the temper of the age requires an ‘either-or.’ If historic Christianity engages in mortal conflict with modern science the prudent man should take sides or keep still. The Progressive Evangelicals do neither. They speak out constantly and vigorously. They maintain that there are values in historic Christianity which must be preserved. They contend also that the scientific spirit has the same origin as the faith of our fathers. They cherish the old. They are hospitable toward the new. Hence their difficulties increase rather than lessen. The future promises no release from the tension in which they find themselves.

To the readers of the public press the most apparent aspect of this tension is the strain in the relationships of the two great parties within the Evangelical churches. Militant Conservatives insist upon an all-or-none policy in reference to inherited creeds. They will allow no distinction between form and substance, between the transient and the permanent, between basic convictions and the phraseology of bygone times in which those convictions have been enshrined. Christianity is static, finished, perfect. You must take it or leave it.

The Progressives refuse to allow their choices to be confined to these alternatives. They will not take the flat earth, the Ptolemaic astronomy, the six days of creation, the Adam and Eve origin of sin, or the verbal infallibility of the Scriptures. They do not find the supreme attestation of spiritual truth in narratives of miraculous disturbances in the order of physical nature. They know that spiritual things are spiritually discerned and that Christ’s authority and power over the human spirit do not grow out of events which are duplicated in the legendary biographies of other historic characters. They know that the confidence of the Christian Church in His ‘everlasting power and divinity’ rests upon what He was and is and upon what faith in Him did and does. The centrality of Jesus Christ in the process of worldredemption is as real to them as it is to their Conservative brethren. But they look for the validation of their faith to a heroic venture of life in His name rather than to labored disquisitions on the dogmas concerning His person.

At bottom, however, the difficulty between the Fundamentalists and the Liberals, as we may designate the two contending parties in orthodox Protestantism, is a symptom rather than a cause. The ultimate source of their mutual embarrassment lies in the disintegrating effects of the scientific method upon the doctrinal deposit of the Christian religion. It is a serious question whether in the long run science is going to feel very much more at home with Liberalism than it does with Fundamentalism. Liberals talk easily of the reconciliation of science and religion and there are many men of a simple and devout faith among the scientists. But the main currents of scientific thought reveal no unmistakable movement toward a spiritual interpretation of the universe. The tendency is rather the other way. The results of Professor Leuba’s investigations a few years ago into the religious beliefs of scientific men were not encouraging.

Students from the Far East are detached observers of our culture, and the world-view which they have taken home as most representative of our intellectual life is a naturalism in metaphysics and a pure humanism in ethics. If this is to be the philosophic result of science, the tension between the Evangelical Liberals and the scientists will be fully as acute as that between the Liberals and the Fundamentalists. It is the flank attack of scientific Naturalism coincident with the frontal attack of conservative religion which constitutes the dilemma of Liberalism.

Religious consequences of ‘the historical method’ may illustrate how contact with science tends to create this dilemma for Liberalism. If a theological seminary has any ‘taint’ of Liberalism about it, it will profess adherence to ‘the historical method.’ That phrase for years has been a shibboleth of the mildly progressive institutions. The method suggested seems to be an innocuous concession to intellectual respectability. But it proves to be the opening of Pandora’s box, and the hapless student may feel before he is through that the concession has been a religious fatality.

The essence of the historical approach lies in its effort to reconstruct in thought the entire milieu of relevant circumstances in which an event had its setting. The historian, for instance, studies the development of the conception of God. He shows how changes in this conception are correlated with social crises, with larger political horizons, and with transitions from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. So far, so good. But presently he asks where the conception of any God at all arose — not merely the substance of the idea, but the form; and you receive from Professor Gilbert Murray the interesting suggestion that the very idea of God is an evolutionary relic and that prayer is simply the residual sniffing of a lonely member of the pack for the lost leader.

A similar result may follow when the historical method is applied to views of human destiny. The historical scholar moves easily and he seems to have little at stake as he strips Heaven of its material glories and Hell of its physical terrors. But presently he comes upon the question, ‘Under what circumstances did the idea of any future life emerge?’ Then, ‘Under what circumstances did there arise the idea of a soul as distinct from a material body?’ Could such an idea originate now in our scientific culture, with what we know of dreams, visions, trances, and coma — the complex of experience out of which man seems to have built this construct of a spiritually detached ‘self’? The answer is likely to be that such conceptions as God and the soul originated in naïve, erroneous interpretations of experience and that they survive because they satisfy certain emotional cravings of human nature. The analysis of these cravings is then turned over to the psychologist, who finds in religion a ‘ defense mechanism ‘ by which man escapes from the gnawing terrors of an ‘inferiority complex’ from which many human beings suffer constantly and to which all men are susceptible in the face of the precariousness of human existence.

The historian and the psychologist between them, once admitted to the laboratory of theological study, succeed in disintegrating about all the compounds of our dogmatic inheritance into their original constituents — the raw impulses of human nature and the more or less hazardous circumstances of life upon this planet.


It may be true that the application of science to the study of religion should not leave us with the pessimistic inferences we have indicated as to the future of Christian beliefs. The reasoning processes just described reveal the common fallacy of judging the value and the validity of an idea solely by its origins. Such logic would condemn the idea of ‘ liberty ‘ because it was the rather sordid, rationalized compromise of contending groups unable either to enslave or to devour one another. It would flout the idea of ‘chastity’ because this conception did not grow up without the support of property motives and the sanction of superstitions. It would look askance at ‘loyalty,’ which doubtless had its rise in the crudest reaction to the pressure of the herd. It suspects man’s faith in a friendly and purposeful universe because that faith breaks forth amid the casual, the naïve, and the historically ephemeral. It ignores in all cases the fact that these conceptions have proven to be doors through which the human spirit has escaped to the endless exploration of its own greatness. Its rigid and formal method discounts the re-creation of all ideas by developing experience. How far it is from the faith of a savage to that of a Millikan or a Pupin!

But, though the logic be weak, the trend which it symbolizes is the dominant one in the philosophy which is developing out of modern science. That philosophy, which seems to have most in common with the world-view known historically as Naturalism, gives us the following verdict on the human experiment.

‘Man is simply an animal. Out of a dream world of gods and souls, the creation of his own half-awakened consciousness, he has come up into the light of science. He knows himself now for what he really is, the adventitious result of a blind thrust by Nature. His business as a terrestrial animal is to satisfy his most imperious cravings. All his ends are but means for accomplishing this task. There are no intrinsic values such as beauty, truth, or goodness. They have gone the way of their supernatural habitat. The whence and the whither of this experiment of Nature’s are no concern of ours. The very question is fatuous and inept. Man is here as the atom and the amœba are here. For the span of an animal’s existence let him be as happy as he may.’

There are certain losses, of course, in a world-view without gods or souls or intrinsic values. Man loses the kind Providence which curved the arrows about him. He has no charm against danger except his own wits. In his battle with fate there is a loneliness which his fathers never knew. There is no compensation for his losses in either achievement or pleasure during the brief moment of cosmic time that his dust is animated by consciousness. As George John Romanes suggested years ago, the words, ‘Work . . . while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work,’ contain a new and fearful imperative. On the other hand there are, perhaps, advantages not to be despised. Every individual will know that it is up to him to make the most of life here and now. Revolutionary ardors, not being dampened by the promise of future bliss, will consume more quickly the débris of tradition which separates man from his heart’s desire. There may be a new tenderness toward every human creature, since all joy must be found within the span of an earth-bound career. To postpone is to lose forever. Naturalism invokes a humane ethic to protect its adherents from the full effects of the ‘cosmic chill.’

Such is the view of life which seems to be growing out of certain popularized results of science. A writer in the New Republic describes it as ‘the emerging American philosophy.’ Its intellectual prestige is guaranteed by such thinkers as John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. It is proclaimed actively by younger men who have all the enthusiasm of the neophyte. Positivism, ethical culture,and left-wing Unitarianism may have failed in general appeal. Naturalistic thinkers are not abashed. They herald for humanity a spiritual renaissance.

Is it not obvious that the challenge to Liberal as well as to Conservative Christianity from this type of thought is unequivocal? The position of the Liberal in particular is most difficult. He has admitted enough of the scientific spirit and method into his thinking to invalidate the ancient supernatural realism which constituted the philosophic basis of Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy. On the other hand, he retains at least a simple faith in a spiritual world-order and in the deathless worth of human personality. All of this side of his life is exposed to unremitting and often cynical attack from the completely emancipated spokesmen of modernity. The Fundamentalists charge the Liberal with treachery to the cause of religion in going as far as he has, while the Humanists warn him that the beliefs he still retains will ultimately force him once again into the bog of obscurantism and superstition. He is told by the Conservatives that he is no longer a Christian; and he is told by the Naturalistic philosophers that he is not yet a scientist.

He is accustomed to hear from the Fundamentalists that he has betrayed the faith, but it is quite disconcerting to find the same charge on the lips of the wise with whom he has desired to associate. Yet the charge is made. Let us put it in the words of George Santayana. ‘In a frank supernaturalism, in a tight clericalism, not in a pleasant secularization, lies the sole hope of the Church. Its sole dignity also lies there. It will not convert the world; it never did and it never could. It will remain a voice crying in the wilderness, but it will believe what it cries and there will be some to listen to it in the future, as there have been in the past. As to Modernism, it is suicide. It is the last of those concessions to the spirit, of the world, which half-believers and double-minded prophets have always been found making; but it is a mortal concession. It concedes everything; for it concedes that everything in Christianity, as Christians hold it, is an illusion.’


Challenged as it is by both Fundamentalism and scientific Naturalism, what is the task of Liberal Christianity?

If Liberalism cannot go back to the Fundamentalist’s position, as Santayana rather satirically advises, it must choose between the following alternatives. It may follow the lure of Naturalism, give up its cosmic faith, and go on to the position of the ethical culture societies. Or it may undertake to continue its rôle of interpreting historic Christianity and science to one another. If it chooses the former alternative the solid body of American Protestantism will harden in its conservatism, while the educated classes will live without any cosmic faith. The two great groups will become more and more disparate, tension will increase, and the struggle between clericalism and anticlericalism, already evident in the legislation against evolution, will divide the soul of America.

If Liberal Christianity chooses the second alternative and strives to mediate between historic Christianity and the modern scientific world, certain aspects of its task appear to be obvious.

Where Liberalism is patchy and opportunistic it must develop intellectual consistency and courage. It must cease to drift. It has meant emancipation from the past. It must now challenge the elements in the higher culture of our own age that represent superficial wisdom and spiritual decadence. It must be as critical toward the new as toward the old. It is now suspected ecclesiastically; it may find itself suspected academically. It must become positive and creative instead of being negative, nerveless, and fearful.

It must not mistake the science of religion for religion. The former should serve the interests of the latter, but literature is more than grammar, architecture more than engineering, and human love more than the psychology of sex. After science has cut the steps of certain knowledge into the mountain of experience, faith will always scramble up beyond to get the view from the heights.

Liberal Christianity must realize that education, social reform, and philanthropy are not valid substitutes for religion. They may be stop-gaps for people who have lost their faith. They may be and often are the expressions of religion and the conditions of religious growth. But they are not religion. Religion is the perspective of life which gives meaning to these activities and the power by which we may carry their burdens. This distinction represents no disparagement of the ‘social gospel.’ No group of Christians has served this generation more heroically or practically than the Quakers, and no group has been more conscious of the inward need of the Divine in order to meet the challenge of the world’s woe.

Liberals must accept the invitation, however, to demonstrate their faith by works. The integration of the demands of intellect and heart which they seek will not be secured simply by cogitations in the philosopher’s chair. Their faith must produce more happiness, more patience and endurance, more courage to meet the unknown, more venturesomeness of spirit, more fellowship among human beings. It must be more daring and yet more livable than reactionary types of Christianity, on the one hand, and purely humanistic philosophy on the other.

As the Evangelical Liberal approaches this conflict with Naturalism, the most serious aspect of his dilemma, his confidence in its outcome rests primarily on his knowledge of the resources of historic Christianity for meeting human need. He has no hope that either Unitarianism or Fundamentalism can successfully resist the shock of Naturalism. He fears that the former, along with the excess baggage of doctrinal Christianity, has discarded the Christian’s weapons of spiritual warfare. He fears that the latter will keep the weapons of the faith locked up within ancient formulœ. He knows that Fundamentalism breeds atheism as certainly as autocracy breeds revolution. As for the Naturalistic philosophers, he questions whether, with all their show of realism, they know life with sufficient intimacy. Have they reckoned on the perennial tragic gap between aspiration and achievement? Have they perceived how prolific civilization is in new pains, in subtle refinements of human agony? Have they appreciated what it has meant to the race thus far to realize in the uttermost depths of failure that it was not alone in the blackness of cosmic night? Have they heard the answer of faith to lifelong frustration? In bottomless despair have they felt a Hand reached down to help? Do they know the experience of untold multitudes who testify that at the moment when human effort was exhausted they were reborn into hope, peace, power — and God?

The Liberal believes that these needs are not temporary or transient, but that they are implicit in the very dignity and greatness of human life. He does not believe that either the stoic self-adjustment or the tenderness growing out of a common tragedy, which Naturalism preaches, is a solution commensurate with the situation.

He is aware, on the other hand, that the solution which Christianity discloses is not a reality measurable in exact units. He knows this reality much as an ignorant settler in a new country knows his little corner of the world. The pioneer cannot measure his acreage or designate his house upon a map. He can direct others to his habitation only by rough signs. Many lose their way trying to find it. It is on the frontier and he is an ignorant man.

In like manner, the devout Christian of every theological type knows the home of his soul. Ask him for the exact information which scientific gentlemen consider alone fit for filing and he can give you little. He may even be bewildered by your question. You have found him upon the frontier of human experience and he is painfully conscious of his ignorance. But he knows where to go when his life is broken and his soul bereft. He knows a place of healing; and his search for it always carries him to a reality beyond himself.

Evangelical Liberals feel that it is their task to interpret this reality disclosed by the soul’s quest in the history of the Christian faith, and at the same time to explore the reality opened to the modern world by the scientific method. The use of that method has already brought a great enrichment of spiritual values. Liberals do not believe that Naturalism will be its necessary result. They are confident that in the long run the reality disclosed by religion and the reality unveiled by science will prove to be one.

It would be far simpler for the Liberals to solve their dilemma by going all the way with Fundamentalists or with Naturalistic thinkers. In either direction they would find peace. As it is, they live with souls distraught. They are held to their task by two considerations. They know that, historically, progress has been won at the point of tension. They know also that the integration of Western civilization, the possibility of securing for it a unified life of intelligence and faith, depends upon such efforts as they are making.

They see in their moments of clearest vision that they are building a bridge between historic Christianity and the modern scientific world. It is their belief that, as time goes on, the traffic over the bridge will increase, the bridge itself will be broadened and its supports strengthened. The bridge may become a thoroughfare. Finally the civilization of the new age may grow out over the river along the thoroughfare, and our children’s children may go back and forth between what were originally separate realms of experience without being aware of any discontinuity between them.

Such is the hope and the faith of those who believe that Liberal Evangelical Christianity has a mission in the world and that the values of historic Christian experience and of modern scientific method may both be at home in a greater age where

. . . mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster.