a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Theology & Philosophy » Pessimism and Optimism in Religion

Pessimism and Optimism in Religion

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

Delivered at The Second Church in Salem, Massachusetts, 
January 17, 1926

The story is told of an old minister in a mill city in New England who used to preach annually a long sermon on the year’s discoveries in astronomy. His people—cotton brokers, bankers and weavers—bore this ordeal with patient resignation. Someone asked him, “What the is the use of this sermon on the stars and astonomical space?”

He replied, “My dear boy, it isn’t any use, but it greatly enlarges my idea of God.”

It is just such a motive that prompts me to talk to you today upon the subject of pessimism in religion. The cry is often rightly made that religion is not a sad affair, that it is something to be enjoyed, but it is very doubtful if the person who makes such a contention has a religion worth enjoying if it has not had another side—a pessimistic side.

In Ecclesiasticus, we have a happy and optimistic view of life:

All the works of the Lord are good, and he will supply every need in its season. And none can say, This is worse than that: for they shall all be well approved in their season. And now with all your heart and mouth sing ye praises, and bless the name of the Lord. (Ecclesiasticus 39:33-35.)

Then, in the very next verse, comes a correspondingly gloomy outlook upon life:

Great travail is created for every man, and a heavy yoke is upon the sons of Adam, from the day of their coming forth from their mother’s womb until the day of their burial in the mother of all things. The expectation of things to come and the day of death trouble their thoughts and cause fear of heart; from him that sitteth upon a throne of glory even unto him that is humbled in earth and ashes; from him that weareth purple and a crown even unto him that is clothed with a hempen frock. (Ecclesiasticus 40:1-4.)

In that great storehouse of human experience, the Psalms, there can be seen throughout these two distinct outlooks on life. One is represented by the song of the joy of living: “Sing aloud unto God our strength; make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. Take a psalm and bring hither the timbre!, the pleasant harp with the psaltery.”

Then, but turn the page and find: “Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me.”

This alternation of attitudes towards life is found in every great religion. One can hardly imagine happier poetry than that of the old blind Homer; indeed, he is called the poet of the rosy-fingered dawn.

Nevertheless, we occasionally see indications that even in the golden age, all was not well. Listen to this from the Iliad, “For there is nothing more wretched than man of all things, as many as breathe and move o’er the earth.”

Now, unless we deny the name of religious experience to these gloomy attitudes, we cannot call religion wholly optimistic. This does not mean that the religious person cannot believe in optimism; in fact, he must believe in it, but “no optimism is worth its salt that does not go all the way with pessimism —and arrive at a point beyond it.”

There are several effects which pessimism has upon the religious and moral experience of the individual, good effects which cannot be otherwise secured, and therefore strong arguments for the encouragement of a certain kind of pessimism.

The first of these effects is a searching out of all the facts of experience—I say “all the facts,” because a hasty optimism is usually based upon a part of experience. The important facts which this healthy pessimism searches out are those facts dealing with our own inner or our own outer life. We call the poet who can do this a realist. Indeed, the great spiritual message of poetry (and this is especially true of modern poetry) is in its discovery of the conveniently forgotten facts—unpleasant facts. The poet sees more clearly and feels more profoundly. His mind is a sensitized plate on which the world of nature and the spirit records its faintest impress. He is the true psychologist—not by analysis and experiment but by imagination and feeling, by putting himself in the place of another, feeling with another, thus interpreting life hidden from the common eye. Thus he gives us revelations of life that are sometimes disagreeable, but that are convincing and cleansing. As an example of this realism which reminds us of the conveniently forgotten facts, listen to this stanza from one of our own Western poets, Carl Sandburg:

A bar of steel—it is only
Smoke at the heart of it, smoke and the blood of a man.
A runner of fire ran in it, ran out, ran somewhere else,
And left—smoke and the blood of a man
And the finished steel, chilled and blue.
So fire runs in, runs out, runs somewhere else again,
And the bar of steel is a gun, a wheel, a nail, a shovel,
A rudder under the sea, a steering-gear in the sky;
And always dark in the heart and through it,
Smoke and the blood of a man.
Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Gary—they make their steel with men.[1]

We have here an insight that gives us a vivid picture of the whole industrial process, both material and human; this is what pessimism can reveal in its fearless realism.

But the pessimism that comes much closer to each one of us is that which gives us a true view of what we really are. George Frederick Watts, the eminent English artist, painted a portrait of a well-known Englishwoman of society, and she was startled in seeing revelations of the inner life in the eyes, which she thought well hidden in her own heart. One of the things which impressed one most in the recent exhibition of John Singer Sargent pictures at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was the poverty of soul in some of the portraits. The drawing of Eleanore Duse was one of the few faces in the group which showed that the artist had something besides externals to portray. One felt in looking at this picture that here Sargent had a reason for making a portrait other than the fact that the subject could afford to pay for it. The great artist searches the Real, revealing the deeper and unknown self, the very secret of the life. Such must be the aim of religious vision—it must include all in its horizon. This requires insight and unflinching honesty with one’s self.

This insight into human nature was probably never revealed so fully as in the teaching of Jesus. Like all of the prophets of Israel, he fought the optimistic complacency of his people. He showed them that it was not only mistaken, but sinful; that true virtue is found in the righteousness which exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. H. G. Wells has given us a virile figure in his picture of Jesus of Nazareth in The Outline of History:

He was too great for his disciples. And in view of what he plainly said, is it any wonder that all who were rich and prosperous felt a horror of strange things, a swimming of their world at his teaching? Perhaps the priests and the rulers and the rich men understood him better than his followers. He was dragging out all the little private reservations they had made from social service into the light of a universal religious life. He was like some terrible moral huntsman digging mankind out of the snug burrows in which they had lived hitherto. In the white blaze of this kingdom of his there was to be no property, no privilege, no pride and precedence; no motive, indeed, and no reward but love. Is it any wonder that men were dazzled and blinded and cried out against him? Even his disciples cried out when he would not spare them the light. Is it any wonder that the Roman soldiers, confronted and amazed by something soaring over their comprehension and threatening all their disciplines, should take refuge in wild laughter, and crown him with thorns and robe him in purple and make a mock Caesar of him? For to take him seriously was to enter upon a strange and alarming life, to abandon habits, to control instincts and impulses, to essay an incredible happiness… Is it any wonder that to this day this Galilean is too much for our small hearts?

The value of pessimism, then, is that it makes us see ourselves as we really are, and, conversely, wherever one finds a religion that is wholly optimistic one may be certain that it is blind to some of the facts of life. The optimism that does not face evil has brought the criticism in recent years that religion is an escape from life—an opiate for the people, as Karl Marx would say. Sigmund Freud has suggested this interpretation of religion. He says that when the child gets into trouble he runs to his mother, in an attempt to escape the evil. During the early years, the child thus acquires the habit of dealing with evil by evasion. When he grows older he can no longer run to his mother’s arms, so he runs to God.

This is a fair criticism of the religion that is optimistic only, that will not face and fight the evil. The same indictment is often made in calling religion otherworldly, the kind of religion that says: “I am a stranger here, heaven is my home.” The history of asceticism is largely a history of withdrawal from active life here, avowedly for the purpose of living closer to God. But experience has taught us that if there be literally no other interest in life than God, the outcome is an empty and barren worship as well as a weakening of normal life. Communion with a God who is wholly of another world cuts the nerve of life in this world.

“No, I thank you,” said a recent writer, “religion is like a sleepwalker to whom actual things are blank.” None of us can help feeling that this man is more religious for, after all, his is the mind whose demands are greatest, the mind whose criticisms and dissatisfactions are, in the long run, fatal to a shallow optimism. Indeed, how can a religion that is only optimistic be anything more than a means of escape from the crassness of reality? It was probably some such thought as this that caused William James to say that “since the evil facts are as genuine parts of nature as the good ones, the presumption should be that they have some rational significance, and that systematic healthy-mindedness [James’s word for narrow optimism], failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain and death any positive and active attention whatever, is formally less complete than systems that try at least to include these elements in their scope. The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed.”

This brings us to the second good effect of pessimism in religion, namely, that it causes one to see the real values of life. This thought was in the mind of an acquaintance of mine who said recently, in speaking of a certain statesman, “I can trust that man because he has suffered. Such a soul must have been purged of all that is petty.” The very pessimist is himself a witness to man’s higher destiny. He is afflicted with goading and repining. He is disgusted, because he sees the seamy side, or rather he sees beyond it, and therefore revolts. “Do you call this a perfect world?” he cries. That of itself is a kind of prophecy. He calls in question all our ideals. Religious pessimism need not be a doctrine of despair. Rather does it breed hope. And right there is the great contribution that Jesus made to true religion. Pessimism had caused the pagan poets to place the golden age in the far past, it made the Hebrew prophets refer it to the distant future, but Jesus dared to say it might be here and now—”the kingdom of God is within you.” Pessimism thus makes one an interpreter not only of actual life, but also of possible life.

Here again we have a parallel between religion and poetry. The poet is not only the realist; he is also the idealist. He knows that realism must be crowned with idealism if he is to portray the whole truth. The poet

Presses on before the race,
And sings out of a silent place.
Like faint notes of a forest bird
On Heights afar that voice is heard;
And the dim path he breaks today
Will some time be a trodden way.

Jesus, the great realist and idealist, saw in the corrupt publican a poverty of spirit, but he also saw a hunger for a better life which was to make of him a great disciple. This was knowledge of the actual crowned by insight of the possible. This is truly the divine discontent. But such noble depression cannot be known to the religion that is only optimistic. It must first have gone all the way with pessimism. It must have experienced a painful realization of the actual. If we suppose the power of sight to be given for a week to a man born blind, and then suddenly taken away, can we say he is restored to his former condition? Yes, in one sense, for he is put back into precisely the same darkness as before. But there is this terrible difference. Now he knows what darkness is. He has tasted one of the fruits of the tree of knowledge and the result is sorrow. The vision of the better life refuses to leave him.

It must be admitted that although the force which raises life to a higher level is a form of pessimism, a religion with such a foundation is not, as a system, a consistent pessimism. If it were that, it would have to end in despair. Christianity is not a consistent pessimism. This is what gives it its claim to superiority among world religions. It has gone all the way with despair and ends in a point beyond it. In the bedrock of its gloom there are veins of the pure gold of optimism. Christianity has not only preached of the depravity of man but also of the kingdom of God. It wishes and hopes for a transformation of man and the world. Graeco-Oriental piety, Plato, the mystery religions and ascetic Christianity all alike have said to man, “Free thyself from the world by detachment.” Jesus said, “Get free from the world by conquest, in order to work in this world in the spirit and in the love of God.” This is a noble kind of otherworldliness. It is a warning against what Wordsworth called the world that is too much with us. The God of Jesus is an active God, who works in man, and the religion of Jesus is thus a mixture of pessimism and optimism. In this peculiar tension between these opposite poles lies its uniqueness. This constitutes its greatness, its truth, its depth, its strength. Jesus’ significance for us is that he fights against the spirit of the world, forcing us to abandon the level on which we move, even in our best thoughts and inspiring us to rise to the height from which we may judge things according to something in us still higher. Jesus calls this the will of God active in us.

As a contemporary example of an optimism that has gone the whole way with pessimism let us notice for a moment the philosophy of life expressed by the English thinker, Bertrand Russell, in his essay called “The Free Man’s Worship.” “Only,” he writes, “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. The life of man viewed outwardly is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of thoughtless Nature. But great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendor, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things—this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship.”

Mr. Russell sees no hope, no future for the race, as “slow doom falls pitiless and dark.” Nevertheless in man there are ideals, noble thoughts, and it is man’s business to cherish these. It is difficult to remember that we are supposed to be in the world of pessimism, but what do we actually find here? Out of the darkness visible flash the outlines bold and austere. The great features of man’s inheritance stand out only the more distinctly. “Here,” as one writer has said, “we have sympathy and self-sacrifice, love and duty, beauty and eternal truth. Assuredly we would leap to the side of such a pessimism in contrast with an over-hasty optimism.”

By examining the pessimistic side of the shield, the optimistic side has become more intelligible. We must not let ourselves be pushed to the point of choosing the one or the other. If we want our religion to apply to all of life, we must tenaciously cling to what one writer has called the “both and” attitude. Religion must have contrasts if it is to have depth. If our optimism is given a true schooling in pessimism, it will shine through us and illuminate all we touch. But if we have either one alone we will, like a rower with only one oar, be unable to progress.

There is no need of apology for pessimism in religion. It helps us see life as it really is, and thence it leads us onward until we receive the Perfect, stretching on beyond the limits of sight, and fling us forward to possession….


Dear Adams,

I am glad that you are preaching in this general direction. In a set of essays which I happen to have, there is a terrible indictment of Chesterton under the caption, “The Blasphemy of Optimism.”

The attack on Chesterton is a bit too severe. But the title is a good one and takes a fair shot at one of the weaknesses of liberalism. The older more melancholy theologies were nearer the facts than our Pollyanna-ism. I have never been quite sure whether it was cowardice or too much comfort—or what—in our general complacent Christianity that made us so superficial. I am inclined to conclude that it was the inevitable and natural reaction from the too gloomy Puritanism of the past. But I never get over a sense of something essentially dishonest in the “cheerio” mood of a great deal of our supposedly emancipated and scientific theology.

Hence my personal pleasure at finding your mind matching mine in the matter. Do you know George Tyrrell’s definition of Christianity as “an ultimate optimism founded upon an immediate pessimism”? It is a fine ringing phrase. But you have the feel of that definition, if not its actual quoted form.

One could pile up suggestions as to more material by way of illustration. Look up some time in Huxley’s Life and Letters what he says about his Romanes Lecture on “The Ethics of Evolution.” There is a fine scientific apologia for an initial pessimism.

Then, didn’t you yourself quote me those essays of Middleton Murray about the realism of Siegfried Sassoon and his kind, with reference to the Russian realists, who always set the grim fact in its whole milieu. If you don’t know those essays perhaps I can get you the reference. But they did a good deal to help me clear up my mind as to why Sassoon as he stands isn’t true, in the sense of being wholly true.

I think you are probably wise to rub in the pessimistic streak in thinking, over so long a period at the outset of your sermon. You have to disabuse the blasphemers in the name of a too cheap optimism.

But the fact remains, as is so often the case in a sermon of this sort, that you have left yourself rather scant time to stress the ultimate optimism. I think you could have picked up a few ringing examples of what Wordsworth calls our “great allies,—thy friends are exultations, agonies, and love, and man’s unconquerable mind.” The passage from Bertrand Russell seems to me to furnish the transition from one idea to the other, and would have been more effectively placed if you had used it just a page earlier. It gets you across, very admirably, from one consideration to the other. Where it stands it is a bit of an afterthought.

Would it be out of place to suggest that you keep your eyes open for great symbolic stories? Your mind is well stocked with poetry and with quotations from the books of the philosophers, psychologists, and the like. You use this material well and wisely. Like myself you will have to be perpetually conscious of the liability of scissors and paste—and I know how bad a seduction that may be. But, heaven knows, better a man whose mind buzzes with living and appropriate reference, than a man whose mind reminds you of a dried pod in autumn in which a couple of attenuated peas rattle about aimlessly. I agree to the peril of too much quotation, but I would rather be guilty of it than of the lean and hungry look of so many sermons.

To get back to the stories. If you will patch out your reading, as a preacher, with a third kind of book—perhaps novels, perhaps books of travel, adventure and the like—that will give you still a third source on which to draw.

Take the story of which I am so fond, that of the Nan Shan in the middle of the Typhoon—at the moment when the narrator fights his way to the bridge and bellows in the captain’s ear that the boats have gone—and he hears from very far off the sound that will be heard when the heavens fall and the earth dissolves—a human voice saying, “All right, all right.” A thing like that gets you by the throat and preaches itself. In your general reading have an eye and ear for such passages as that. They are often the very making of a sermon, and become its occasion, the preacher in his own mind, backing up and starting for them from the outset.

I find that it makes all the difference in the world if when you sit down to write you have a definite idea of the particular form of the conclusion at which you arrive.

Most sermons fade away or peter out because we do not see the end from the beginning. I am not in favor, personally, of making an indefinite skeleton outline and then patching on bits of flesh here and there. But I am in favor of getting the objective clearly in mind, and then actually taking it as a man takes a high jump, measuring the steps and the take off all the way, with the eye, while the writing runs along, so that everything is paced and timed for the actual goal of the thought.

As ever,