The New Piety

There are signs today that the American people are intent on a religious revival, but how deep, asks the REVEREND HARRY C. MESERVE,does such faith go? Is it lip service or a genuine awakening? A graduate of Haverford College and of the Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Meserve has been minister of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco since 1949. He has served two terms as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Unitarian Association, and for three years was Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Christian Register.

by HARRY C. MESERVE

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IS THERE a revival of religion in America today? Many signs suggest it. Books dealing with frankly religious themes appear high on the best-seller lists. Movies on biblical and religious subjects are popular box-office attractions. Gospel songs sung by crooners and swing quartets can frequently be heard on radio and television. Popular mass-circulation magazines seem to include articles on religion more frequently than they used to. Bishop Sheen, Billy Graham, and Norman Vincent Peale each number their adherents and admirers in the thousands if not the millions.

Church membership and attendance are definitely up in almost all churches. Skepticism is no longer smart. Faith is fashionable. Each Saturday night the newspapers announce that the President and Mrs. Eisenhower plan to attend church on Sunday. Each Monday morning the papers announce that they did in fact do so. The Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Evanston, Illinois, last summer received more extended publicity coverage than any other religious event in the history of our country. Even Jane Russell, not hitherto noted as a theologian, recently announced that she had found God to be “a livin’ doll.” Cabinet meetings open with prayer. We pledge allegiance to the flag as “one nation under God” where before we were merely “one nation indivisible.” A new stamp issue proclaims what our coinage has traditionally proclaimed: “In God we trust.” These and many other signs point toward some kind of stirring of renewed interest in religion.

All in all, it is certainly true that religion is receiving a better press today and far more general attention and respect than it has had in many years.

But there is a real question as to what kind of religion is being revived in the new piety. Is it a discovery of a deep ethical faith and of the resources of courage and strength which can enable us to meet the severe challenges of this time? Or is it a more or less superficial interest in certain outward signs and gestures without the deep inward changes of mind and spirit which always mark a revival of genuine religion?

The new piety takes various forms. One of them is the peace of mind, peace of soul variety. Anxiety is one of the major characteristics of our time. Millions of people have left behind the “faith of our fathers” and have found little or nothing to put in its place. These are the spiritually displaced persons of the modern world. They are aware of a deep anxiety about their own meaning as persons and about the meaning of life as a whole. They are aware of a great need for reassurance and for selfconfidence.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that their anxiety is real and justified and that their need and hunger are sincere. But what does the new piety of peace of mind and soul offer them? It says in effect: “Everything is really all right. It is you who are out of tune with the Infinite. If you can just get right with God, coöperate with Him, get Him on your side, so to speak, then the things you want and have striven for so far with such disappointment can be yours. Your anxieties will be relieved. Your frustrations will be removed and you will be on the way to success and happiness.”

In this form of the new piety, religion appears as a means to an end. It justifies itself because it is useful to us in getting the things that we want and adjusting ourselves to the world. It helps us to “stop worrying and start living” or to get that promotion or to smooth out that unpleasant situation in our personal relationships.

All these things are undoubtedly good and necessary. But the interpretation of religion as primarily a means to getting the things that we want belongs in the realm of magic. Primitive religions do make this emphasis. But the more mature and highly developed religions have insisted for centuries that the best and truest experiences of religion come when a person has given up asking “ What do I require of God?” and learned to ask humbly “What does God require of me?”

Peace of mind, self-confidence, courage, strength, and faith are all precious spiritual gifts. All of us want and need more of them than we have. But if there is one consistent lesson of our historic religious tradition, both in Judaism and in Christianity, it is that these gifts come as by-products of our sincere and humble commitment to the task of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

It is a strange and persistent paradox of man’s religious experience that his peace of mind and his courage and strength lie on the other side of his faithful commitment to purposes and ends larger and more durable than his personal destiny and so worthy of his loyalty that he is able to give himself to them come what may. Jesus stated this paradox in two arresting passages: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.” That is to say, take up something of my labors; and in them, mysteriously you will find the rest which you could not find elsewhere. Again, in even more familiar words: “Whoever will save his life shall lose it and whoever will lose his life, for my sake, shall find it.”

The new piety of peace of mind and soul, in spite of the fact that it is helping many people to adjust themselves better to life and to the world as it is, must also come to terms with that aspect of religion which is concerned with man’s efforts to transform himself and the world in the direction of what ought to be.

A gospel of smooth adjustment to the world as it is, with all its mediocrity and evil, leaves out that austere side of religious experience in which we see ourselves as pilgrims and pioneers, the creators of the colony of heaven in the wilderness of the world that is. The religious person at his best is never wholly content with himself and at peace with the world, for he knows how far he falls short of what he ought to be and can be. There is a positive and healthy tension between what is and what ought to be that forbids complacency and incites to action. We are admonished by St. Paul not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds that we may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

In so far as the new piety of peace of mind and soul permits us to forget or ignore the transforming task of religion, it is failing to offer a revival of individual conscience and ethical social concern. Remove these elements from religion and what is left is a palliative, a pain-killer, but not a healer and a restorer of courage and strength. The stern lesson of religion through the ages is: no peace of mind without adventurous thought and faith; no comfort without bold commitment to something better than the world that is; no abiding joy and security without loyalty to the best.

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A SECOND form of the new piety is the patriotic type. The intensity of the struggle with communism in recent years has led many to believe that since communism is dogmatically atheistic in its philosophy, those who are opposed to communism must be dogmatically theistic. From here it is not a long step to the point where we make belief in God a test of a proper hatred of communism. And from this point one proceeds quickly to the assumption that God is not the Father of all mankind but the peculiar protector of the chosen people against the rest, of the world. By this process we reduce our idea of God to the level of the fierce tribal deity of the early Old Testament. We make Him into “an angry man, hating half the world.” He becomes a sort of Big Brother upon whom we call for aid in our struggle. We assume His sanction and aid for whatever we propose to do since He is on our side.

Now there are many sound reasons for opposing communism, and the person who today can see no differences of ethical value between the ways of communism and the ways of democracy has certainly lost his power to discriminate between relative good and evil; but the tendency to think of God as the Big Brother destroys a higher and nobler vision of God which has been one of the best contributions of Judaeo-Christian faith. God is not the guarantor of any particular nation’s destinies. As the prophets of Israel and Jesus after them insisted, God stands for that power of truth and justice and righteousness and love before which all men and all nations are judged. The very foundation of an ethical view of the world is the realization that “God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him.” We may trust, that in our struggles we are on God’s side. But it is presumptuous and untrue to insist that God must back us up whatever we do.

We do not become a better or more religious people because the name of God is engraved on our stamps and coinage, or even by adding the words “under God” to the pledge of allegiance to the flag. We shall not survive as a nation by trusting that God will turn out to be our Big Brother in the conflict with our enemies. We become worthy to survive and to draw on the strength of God in the measure that our personal attitudes and our policies and actions as a nation genuinely reflect something of the divine justice, mercy, and love.

In so far as the new piety of patriotism permits us to forget this austere truth, it weakens our moral fiber as a people, degrades the idea of God, and points backward in time toward the primitive superstition and tribalism which the Hebrew prophets fought to overcome 2500 years ago. If we as a nation are truly under God, we will know ourselves as under the divine judgment, called to penitence and challenged to reveal in history a more universal justice, a wider compassion, and a more patient and long-suffering love than any nation has yet shown.

A third form of the new piety might be called the emotional shock treatment type. We live in anxious, desperate times and nobody can blame us if we are hungry for a sense of assurance and certainty which we cannot find. The temptation is always upon us to escape from the severe disciplines of reason, from the effort to think things through to some sort of sensible conclusion, from the tensions of doubt and questioning, from the challenges which make faith an adventure involving risk and the possibility of failure. Piety of the emotional shock treatment type offers a way out of all this. It calls on us to abandon thought, to ridicule reason, to acknowledge the complete helplessness and incompetence of our minds and by an act of desire and will to throw ourselves on the mercy of God and accept a scheme of supernatural salvation.

The prospect is in many ways alluring. No man who has attempted to think his way through the great problems of life can fail to regard with humility the vast gap between the reach of the human mind and the size of the mystery which surrounds and includes it. No one knows better than the thinker that reason is not enough, and that all human thought is at last defeated by the stubborn mysteries of life. But to the appeal of those who offer the emotional shock treatment, he can only reply that the abandonment of thought is not enough either. It would doubtless be a great relief to feel oneself “safe in the arms of Jesus.” The vast crowds, the skillful modern techniques of presentation, the repetitive dogmatic assertions, are emotionally stirring and satisfying. But the thoughtful religious person cannot get out of his head the great command which says: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind” — the heart and soul and strength along with, not instead of, the mind.

While the piety of emotional shock treatment may well induce a vigorous, positive response and even a deep desire to live a new life, it does not show much evidence as yet of aiding the growth of the whole person into an intelligent devotion to higher ethical and spiritual values, which is the only true revival of the religious spirit. In the midst of all the crowds, the floodlights, the techniques, the yelling and the general excitement, the earthquake, wind, and fire, a still, small voice whispers to the consciences of thoughtful men: “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?” And the words of Jesus set. the standard of judgment: “By their fruits, ye shall know them.”

It may be that a necessary part of a revival of genuine religion is to be found in the piety of emotional shock treatment, just as necessary parts are also found in the piety of peace of mind and of patriotism, but in themselves these three types of religious revival are not enough.

The piety of patriotism, now in danger of losing itself in the very nationalism which is threatening to plunge the world into total war, must grow up until it dares confront us with a vision of God who is the God of all mankind and a humanity made up of many peoples and nations all precious in His sight. Any smaller idea of God simply dooms us to the tribal conflicts and hatreds from which we have been trying to escape for centuries.

The piety of peace of mind and soul must grow up until its priests and adherents dare present it as something more than psychotherapy with a religious tinge and smooth adjustment to the world as it is. Somehow it must arouse in men not only the longing for comfort and peace but a vision of themselves as they long to be and of the cleaner world they can help to make. Something of the ancient prophetic and apostolic fire needs to be rekindled in the piety of peace of mind so that its adherents can move out of the vicious circle of their own neurotic fears and anxieties and seek their peace of mind in bold commitment to the effort to do something of God’s will on earth.

The piety of emotional shock treatment will have to face the fact that religion is something more than emotional shock treatments, necessary and important as these may sometimes be. Religion is also the steady, sober search for intellectual and emotional integrity, for wholeness and harmony of mind and heart, and for the expression of this wholeness in patient, intelligent effort to realize, in the world as it is, the best possible ethical ideals and policies.

If these changes can take place in the prevailing popular pieties, there is at least a chance that our age may indeed witness an authentic revival of the religious spirit which could save us and our children from the prospect of continual frustration and anxiety and the ever-present dread of total destruction.

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MEANTIME, there is another evidence of the possible existence of a religious revival which seems to me both more general and more important than any of the prevailing popular pieties. There has been a slow and subtle change in the mood of thought and feeling with which people approach religion. This has been due to the collapse of certain illusions by which many people lived until quite recently. There were in the 1930s hosts of people whose interest in religion centered in it as a means to social and political reform. Their real faith was that social and political reforms were ends in themselves and that religion could be a powerful aid in bringing about the necessary changes.

One meets this attitude today far less often than one used to. It is not that the concern for social change has decreased. Rather the problem is now seen by many in larger dimensions. The reformation of society, the idea of the kingdom of God on earth, is seen to be not merely a matter of laws, commissions, organizations, and programs. It is also a matter of man’s spiritual orientation, his knowledge of himself, his faith in his own powers, his feeling of belonging not only to the human community but to some deeper and more enduring community of faith and meaning which was before he was and will be after he is gone. There has been an unmistakable revival of interest in what we used to call “personal religion” as distinguished from “social religion” or “the social gospel.”This revival is healthy in that it recognizes the roots of faith and hope from which all significant action springs and is a sincere search for a better understanding of those roots as they exist and influence the lives of individuals.

A second evidence seems to me to exist in the widespread abandonment of what might be called the negative dogmatisms. One meets some people today who are frankly cynical and many who are skeptical as to religious faith. But there are few of these who are happy about it or proud of it. The smugness has gone out of cynicism and the skeptics are asking the questions which will lead at length to affirmation of some kind. One meets few atheists, though many agnostics. But the agnosticism is humble and open rather than self-satisfied. Whereas the agnostic of yesterday appears to have enjoyed his condition, the agnostic of today would like to be convinced of some positive content in religion, if such a thing is possible. He knows that it is frivolous to confront the ultimate issues of life as if he were not really concerned with them. He does care about the meaning of life and he would like to know more.

Disillusioned with force, with politics, and with science as saviors, man today searches within himself for hints of those foundations of truth and justice and love on which his thought and action must be based if his power is to be put in the service of justice, his politics redeemed from triviality and corruption, his science devoted to the enrichment of life.

“Man,” said Albert Schweitzer when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace, “has today become superman because of the power for good or evil which science has placed in his hands. But the superman suffers from a fatal imperfection in his spirit. He is not elevated to that level of superhuman reason which must correspond to the possession of superhuman force.”

Perhaps the single greatest factor which makes for a genuine religious revival today is the fact that men everywhere are becoming aware of this terrible truth and are uneasy about it. It is in this uneasiness and restlessness that the search for higher values, the search for God, can begin. Insofar as the new pieties of peace of mind and soul, of patriotism, and of emotional shock treatment are deepened and enlarged enough to aid men in this search, they will be of help in bringing about a general revival of authentic religion. Certainly they should not be condemned out of hand, however distasteful they may be. But neither should they be blindly accepted and approved. For if they are, they may divert our attention from the most important need. That need is: the reorientation of the human spirit so that man sees himself as a child of the Universal God, conceived in dignity and in freedom, sharing a common humanity with all men the world over, answerable to abiding values of truth, justice, and love, in the service of which he finds himself and the things which belong to his peace.