The Larger Agnosticism


WHEN I was beginning my ministry, eighteen years ago, the chief task facing those who wished to be prophets of religion was apparently to persuade people that God was important. There was then abroad a skeptical agnosticism about the Central Person beneath and behind and through the visible universe. That agnosticism is common to-day. It is a thing even harder to combat than it then was — not because the idea of God is less reasonable than it was then, but because our contemporary pessimism has widened its scope. A generation ago men might doubt God, but they doubted little else. They did not, for example, doubt themselves. They did not doubt the worth-whileness of humanity. Indeed, there was about that time much in vogue a thing, vestigial remnants of which still are lying about, which called itself humanitarian religion — a faith which regarded man in himself as almost, if not quite, divine. People who scorned supernaturalism told you with enthusiasm that they believed in man and in his future. They sought to promote natural honor among men, for men, in a true fraternity. They were convinced that in human love was to be found a perfect substitute for that divine love the existence of which seemed to them at best only of academic interest.

Nowadays men may not believe in God more, but they certainly believe in man less.

There are reasons for the growth of this newer and wider agnosticism — this doubt about the worth of human beings. The war was a bitter blow to human self-esteem. The whole struggle was brutal, stupid, out of harmony with the higher humanitarianism. Our vaunted progress, our supposed emancipation from what we called the superstitions of religion, our trust in human reason, all our deification of humanity, resulted only in the most horrible, and futile, butchery in history. We who had said that men were as gods found out, or so it seemed to us, that men were merely stupid, selfdestructive beasts. The war did indeed help on the new agnosticism.

Other things helped too. During the last century science rediscovered for us that in respect to our bodies we were animals and from the animals. This was a great opener of eyes. We dwelt upon it and talked about it and taught it to our youngsters, with marvelous forgetfulness that because we were beasts it did not of necessary logic follow that we were nothing but beasts. If you tell a generation, from babyhood through the university, that it is animal, and fail to tell it about the parts of human living that are not animal, it is apt to believe what it has been taught. And it is partly at least for that reason that in the ears of a generation so taught, as ours has been, the higher humanitarianism is apt to sound supremely silly. The result of this partial, lopsided education is horrid, even though it has its amusing side. A generation which sought not to love God, but in His place to enthrone man, finds it has children who find the new deity more absurd than the older one.

The youngsters have discovered that man is not divine; that he is very, very much of the earth earthy. Our forefathers knew that too. The only hope, as they saw it, for humanity was that it might struggle on toward God with the compassionate help of God. They believed in human depravity, but they also believed in God’s grace. Our children believe in the depravity, but they know next to nothing of the grace. In our youth we, as a generation, believed in neither of these things. Our children know at least this much more than we knew, that in our overestimate of man’s natural ability and virtue we were fools. They cannot see that we behave like gods at all. They have no faith in human divinity, even in that of their fathers and mothers. They insist that men are beasts, born to live for comfort, for appetite, for sensory enjoyments, and for wealth. It is as aspirants for such things that they esteem us, their elders. Our pretensions and our accomplishments seem to them contradictory. They smell an odious hypocrisy.


The higher humanitarianism is today knocked into a cocked hat. Thomas Huxley doubted God a bit, but waxed almost tearful about the worth of man, and rhapsodized of human love. His grandson, Aldous Huxley, laughs pityingly at man and pours gentle scorn upon love. He writes long, and horribly tiresome, novels to show that love is only a rather nasty physical appetite which rules us, and fools us in the end. Dear Vida Scudder at Wellesley has recorded how shocked she was to find that her students in later years laughed at Wordsworth’s great ‘Ode to Duty,’ ‘stern Daughter of the Voice of God. . . . Who art a light to guide, ’ because Duty was such an antiquated and ridiculous concept in their eyes. Professor Krutch in the Atlantic Monthly for August puts the whole point of view with candor, even with bluntness. ‘Many other things,’ he says, ‘we have come to doubt, — patriotism, selfsacrifice, respectability, honor . . . the wreck of love is conspicuous. . . . We have grown used ... to a Godless universe, but we are not yet accustomed to one which is loveless as well, and only when we have so become shall we realize what atheism really means.’ Dr. Krutch’s words seem to imply that this ultimate atheism is going to mean something very fine. When religion, duty, honor, patriotism, self-sacrifice, respectability, and love are all discarded as ridiculous superstitions, then the race is going to be emancipated. But as you read him you perceive that even he is whistling hard to keep his courage up and is inwardly somewhat appalled at the outcome of his own logic. If this were merely a matter of an article by a single misanthropic philosopher, it would not matter much. Its significance, as those of us well know who live closely with people from eighteen to thirty-five years of age, lies in the fact that this way of looking at things is common. Our children are saying — maybe some of us are — what the cynical author of Ecclesiastes said long ago: ‘That which befalleth the sons of men is that which befalleth the animals — the same thing to both. As the one perishes, so perishes the other. Man hath no preëminence above the beasts. All is foolishness.’

What is to be said about all this larger cynicism? The thing that needs to be said about it is that this sort of talk is both buncombe and a bore. We must admit, of course, that man is a beast. That is where he starts from. The thing that always has distinguished him, however, from the rest of the beasts — the thing which the cynicism of the moment forgets—is that man has not been and is not content to remain on that beastly level. He is ever struggling toward a kind of living, a set of values, that are not beastly at all. He is bent on discovering some queer thing called Truth, for instance. To get toward it he will deny animal urges and rewards. He will starve for it, slave for it, suffer for it, die for it — and count himself happy to have had the chance. The modern behaviorist may call him a fool for his pains. Dr. Krutch may esteem him an unemancipated ass. But he will do it and rejoice in it. He will value Truth higher than wealth or popularity. And when he does deny the quest, and behaves as a rational animal would behave, it makes him miserable and he knows that he is a cad. Beasts who are nothing but beasts do not behave that way. Man also, starting on the animal level, pursues a thing he calls Beauty. The funny fellow cannot even tell you what Beauty is. It is a will-o’-the-wisp, but he struggles toward it. He even tries to copy it, in what he calls the Arts. To express one tiny bit of it he will endure privations, bitter ones. And whenever he gives up the search for it, if he does, he knows himself for a poor thing and hates his own abandonment. In the pursuit of this Beauty he knows lies a part, at least, of his destiny. This is strange conduct for beasts who are nothing but beasts. And man also, starting from the level of the animal, pursues Love — not merely love in a physical or mating sense (which apparently is the only kind of love known to such persons as Carpenter and Ellis and Krutch), but love as a passionate surrender of self—sacrifice of one’s own happiness to others, that in one’s dying there may be for them new life. And man, starting from the level of the beasts, pursuing Truth, Beauty, Love, has perceived that these are all attributes of a great Reality — for the perfectness of which his heart is hungry. He calls this Reality God, and he knows that when he turns toward this God, God somehow lifts him up into a being more real than beastly being.

All this is an integral and vital part of human experience. Yet the modern cynic scorns it. All human history cries that life is a search for a Reality far beyond us. It is this struggle which makes life the magnificent adventure that it is. The cynic denies the reality of the struggle, because forsooth it is a struggle. Because man has not arrived, he shouts that man has never started. To him all man’s good dreams are nightmares. To his mind man is less worthy than the beasts; he is a beast who, alone among beasts, supposes in a ridiculous idiocy that he is not a beast. From the points of view of logic, common sense, pragmatic test, and fact, the whole of this position, despite its scientific pretensions, is foolishness. Happily there are many who realize this foolishness. What can be done for them?

At least we must recognize that the old humanity worship cannot be brought back. Man is not a noble hero. He is in constant struggle from beastliness to godliness. In him is the great warfare. The animal within him urges him to remain content with the pursuit and ownership of things and with the fulfillment of appetite. But Reality keeps calling him to an adventure toward Truth and Beauty and Goodness. The beast within him cries ‘Grab!’ while something else cries ‘Give!’ He knows the worth of honor, but he is not always honorable. He sees the beauty of courage, but frequently he is a coward. Duty is to him compelling, but it does not always compel. He knows what love may be, but over and over again he degrades it or denies it. He is not to be trusted, though he is to be loved. He is not to be worshiped, though he is to be respected. He is pitiable. He is enviable. His life is a joke, and a tragedy, and a sublime quest. It is not in him as now he is that his true significance lies. He is only on the way. As Aristotle said, the significance of anything, including man, lies not in its origin, but in its destiny. Whence man came may be interesting, but whither man tends is what really matters.


The end and the meaning of life lie in God — in a final Reality now aspired toward but hard to understand, apprehended but never comprehended. Contemplation of the end toward which mankind is struggling is what the world needs now, as it has always needed it. It is in this contemplation that religion consists, religion which we must have if life is to regain its dignity. It must, of course, be real religion, not a socially conventionalized substitute, of the sort ascribed to the heroine of a late popular novel, of whom it is written, ‘She had no religion beyond a sufficient initiation into its ceremonies to permit attendance on them, on social occasions, without a faux pas.’ Religion is to a human being either the most serious and vital of human activities or worse than nothing. Our religion must be emancipated from social humbuggery, with all its apparatus of dress clothes and rented pews and sycophantic parsons and patronizing people. Ours must be a mystical and sacramental religion, wherein and whereby you and I and our children may lift our hearts in self-freed adoration toward that Perfection which we long to embrace; religion wherein and whereby we may forget food and drink and clothes and motors and worldly position and organized amusements and clever trickiness of speech, and all the rest of the animal palavering which owns and hampers us, — none of which satisfies us, most of which stifles us, — and feed in our hearts on Him who — cynics to the contrary notwithstanding — is all that we long to be. We need religion, religion wherein and whereby we may look on One whose sufferingtested eyes speak Truth, whose torn body is more beautiful than flesh can be until the Spirit has battled with it and conquered it, whose Goodness both shames us into penitence and cleanses us into decency. We are really athirst for God, we modern people — but afraid to drink the wine of Him lest journalistic cynics with sharp tongues perhaps may sneer at us. How long shall we thus be self-conscious and cowardly? How long shall we ignore the race’s age-bought wisdom? How long shall we deny the validity of that struggling on toward God which alone makes man’s life a thing of meaning? Not long, I think.

And how long shall we remain content with an irreligious educational system, with schools and colleges and universities which regard the mystical experiment as a polite appendage to life, whose chapels are tolerated survivals of the past — schools and colleges and universities where youth is initiated into almost every craft except that craft which matters most to the race; where men and women become alert and skilled in looking back and down, but awkward and self-conscious when they try to look forward and up; where all man’s dreams seem fanciful and all man’s heroisms futile; where students are taught all things else but how to approach in natural and unaffected adoration that destiny of man which is God? Let us pray to that same God, not long!