Religion and the Gospel of Success

OUR estimate of religion is bound up to some degree with the success of religion. One does not need to be a doctrinaire pragmatist to believe that. One need be only a garden-variety minister, doing what he can by preaching and praying and calling. To such a man success will not be the sole criterion of religion’s value, but it will be one. He believes that his labor is not in vain in the Lord. If he keeps hewing away at the job, eventually there will be some measurable success to reward his efforts. If enough men keep hewing away, the success will be greater, and perhaps society itself may be changed.

He may think of this success as consisting of numbers added to his church, or decisions made on special occasions, or increased programmes and activity in the church. Or, less selfishly, he may conceive of success in terms of a cleaner city or a more peaceful world or a more just economy. Or, less selfishly still, he may think of success as meaning lives made richer, character stronger, and hearts more outpouring. These things give the man of religion a warm glow. He is in a successful undertaking, he is proud of his calling, and he girds up his loins to achieve future victories in the name of religion.

But all the while he is being beguiled and betrayed. He is all unconsciously shifting the ground of his work, and indeed of his whole life. For the joy of success is succeeded by the despair of failure. Members are not added, no cards are signed, the city does not get cleaner, peace does not come upon earth, the characters of men remain hard and the hearts selfish. Then his faith begins to slip, imperceptibly but actually. What is the matter with this thing that it does not work? Why should one be a bond servant of a movement that shows only a continuous succession of failures? If religion does not bring in the Kingdom of God, clearly defined as it is in his mind in terms of social justice and wellbeing, then better to desert it and find something that gives at least a glimmer of hope of ultimate success. Many have so reasoned, and many have gone.

The trouble, of course, lies in the original assumption that religion has anything to do with either success or failure. These things are alien to its genius and life. Must religion succeed? No. Must religion fail? No. Religion must simply be. It is concerned, not with achievement, but only with existence. The decay of religion in any life begins at the moment when that life begins to wonder what religion is going to accomplish. The fine edge of the spiritual experience is dulled the instant the question is asked: ‘What am I getting out of my religion?’ The question is thoroughly irrelevant. From that point on, the individual begins to be unhappy because religion is not measuring up to his standards of success. It ought to make him more poised, he thinks, more courageous, more useful, more buoyant, more what not, and in his concern about these attributes and results he forgets all about the simple, satisfying, quiet faith which was his before he tried to force it into the mould of a successful movement.

There is a current form of this harassed mood which is called ‘sharing.’ A man might be quite happy in his religion if it were not for the sense of obligation, of necessary achievement, which the theory of sharing involves. Here is a life perfectly content in its faith, capable now and then of high and exalted moments of communion with God. In one of these moments the thought intrudes, ‘But I must share this,’ and at once the whole experience has lost its radiance. The poor man, laboring under the sharing obsession, struggles into his overcoat and goes out into the streets to find someone — anyone — to whom he can exhibit the pathetic fragments of what might have been an unforgettably lovely and empowering experience.

This confusion of religion with achievement is seen not only in individual life, but perhaps even more frequently in religious societies and groups. I remember being present at a meeting of a woman’s missionary society where the president gave an able and stirring plea for the cause, picturing the difficulty of the struggle and the need for strength of life and purse to wage the fight. And then she ended with this: ‘And we know that it is God’s cause, and God’s cause cannot fail.’ At once a cloud seemed to shadow the room. The glory had departed. The introduction of success all but destroyed the religious interest and enthusiasm which the earlier words had aroused. It was almost as if she had said: ’And we know that it is God’s cause, and God’s cause cannot succeed.’ The effect then would not have been much different. An alien element had entered, and all felt it.

This is not to say that the ethical note does not enter the religious experience. It enters in such a way, however, that there is still no surrender or even reference to success or failure. The essentially religious man in conflict with an unjust and chaotic social order continues to hold his faith apart from what it might achieve in the remedy of these wrongs. His social passion never comes to him as either a guarantee or a product of success. It comes at a point far deeper than that, in the sense of obligation, the persuasion of what he must do. The consequences do not enter in.

This, then, marks the clear division between the religious and the nonreligious person. I talked a few weeks ago with several people who consider themselves evangelical Christians, while at the same time social radicals. Their passion for economic justice was superb, and is now being demonstrated in their works. But that was the goal, the standard, the touchstone for all else. Even their religion was welcomed and retained because it contributed to that end. They were perfectly candid about that. The ideals of Jesus, the power of prayer, the dream of the Kingdom — these things would help, more than anything else, in achieving the new world. But in this seeming success of religion lay its defeat: it became a thing lashed to the chariot wheel of a cause, used and then tossed aside when the goal seemed within sight and religion no longer needed, reduced to the status of aide to the general who plans and executes his successful campaign of social reconstruction.

That is the inglorious end of the religion which tries to succeed, and which forgets that its function is not to win, but to be; not to achieve, but to exist; not to be expressed, but to be enjoyed. Religion cannot stand unless presented as being an autonomous experience, which may or may not conquer the world, but which, nevertheless, has its place and right and value forever. That is the reason for fearing such a name as ‘The Fellowship of Socialist Christians,’ no matter how much one may endorse the aims of the organization. Which word comes first? Is Socialism accepted because it helps Christianity, or is Christianity accepted because, and as long as, it helps the Socialist cause? Men are really Christians, not when they want the powerful tool of religion in achieving some end, however good, but when they recognize that there are these things they must see and do, and whether or not the end is achieved remains forever secondary.

Basically, all people who have any religious impulse whatever recognize this autonomy of religion. How otherwise can one account for the resiliency of faith? Here are two sides in a social conflict over such problems as slavery, child labor, prohibition. Religious people are on both sides, and in the stress of the moment they are all asking of their faith that it bring their side success. One side fails, religion has not succeeded, and we might expect a general desertion. But faith goes on living, fed by some hidden springs, and it is soon forgotten that in a particular issue religion did not ‘succeed.’ The enjoyment, the imperative, the autonomy, remain.

The very story of creation verifies this sense of religion’s independence. ‘And God saw every thing that he had made, and behold, it was very good.’ I am glad that God did not regard it as being good for something. Simply good. Viewed by our standards, there was no point in the creation. I do not believe any point was intended. It was and is simply a gift, from that day to this, to be lived in and enjoyed. So with all God’s touch with man — neither success nor failure, but simply Himself.

If this seems like a retreat, all that can be said is this — that it is better to retreat from the world than to retreat from God. But it is not a retreat. On the contrary, this kind of religion is the only power in human experience which cannot be stopped, and will some day overcome the world.