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Religion’s Worst Enemy

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Is God Necessary? NO! and YES!

Chapter 3

By Herbert F. Vetter

In Martin Luther’s battle hymn of the Reformation are these words of fighting faith:

Still our ancient foe Doth seek to work us woe.
His craft and power are great;
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

The words are strange with power. But what is, who is this ancient foe? Who is this enemy of faith? What is the worst enemy of religion in the modern world?

Is the worst enemy of religion pride? Is it that haughty, classic weasel in the soul, renowned for thriving on and driving toward destruction by tearing down others’ personalities so that one’s own self-esteem may be exalted to new heights? Is it pride of intellect? pride of property, such as the home in which one lives? pride of family, whether ancestral or contemporary? pride of position, or occupation, of status in the community?

Or is the worst enemy of religion selfishness, the selfishness from which this spirit of arrogance flows? Is it the selfishness that would center all life in one’s own person, regardless of the cost to other people—the selfishness that is the untamed fountain of anger and hatred, envy and lust for power, falsehood and greed? Is that the worst enemy of religion?

Or is the enemy of enemies not so much personal as social? Is the worst enemy of religion today nationalism—that passionate attachment to one’s own country which blinds one to the need and hopes of other nations? Is it that idolatrous devotion to one’s native land which now deadlocks the world in parochial strife?

Or is it racism—that radical denial of the brotherhood of man which again and again erupts to plague the conscience of modern man, dividing mankind according to the ridiculous standard of skin pigment?

Or is it modern war, that puncturer of our pretense to love—the modern war of total populations, by total populations, against total populations? Is total war, war for total stakes, the worst enemy of religion?

As I have reflected on this question, I have been driven toward the conclusion that the worst enemy of religion is not any of these particular personal or social evils, but something which is at once more ultimate and more inclusive—the source from which pride, selfishness, national ism, racism and war forever grow. I suggest that the worst enemy of religion is religion. As so often happens, the corruption of the best yields the worst. It is not without reason, then, that Paul Tillich, the most creative systematic theologian recently at work in America, declared: “The first word of religion is the word against religion.” One might well add that the first word of theology is the word against theology.

This thesis, that the worst enemy of religion is religion, swings sharply counter to the main currents of our time, for today religion is all too effectively exempt from criticism. “You must have faith!” we are repeatedly told, as if faith in faith were sufficient to redeem us from destruction. In view of the contemporary resurgence of religious inter est, it is particularly important that certain questions be posed—and answered—without evasion, questions about contemporary religion:

  • What is the most segregated hour of the week? Eleven A.M. each Sunday morning.
  • On which area of the earth has more blood been shed than anywhere else? The Holy Land.
  • What institution in the modern world most rigidly adheres to irrelevant patterns of the past? The church.
  • What branch of modern knowledge is the most provincial in its basic attitudes and assumptions? I fear it is my own branch, theology.
  • What aspect of our culture has contributed the most to unrealistic ethics and the irresponsibility of other-worldliness? Religion.

In the face of such questions and their all-too-painful answers, can we defend religion’s exemption from criticism? Prophetic religion ever must say No! The first word of religion is indeed the word against religion. Has not religion a responsibility to speak the word against its enemy of enemies, religion?

There is more, ever more documentary evidence before us, even in the Bible itself. In the Old Testament, the height of ethical religion was attained by the prophets, who sent the thrust of their attacks against the false religion of their day. Listen to the words of Isaiah:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord…. Bring no more vain offerings…. I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. [Isaiah 1: 11-15; RSV]

Consider the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who stood heroically in the line of the Hebrew prophets. Were not his harshest words spoken against the religious leaders of his own day? One of his disciples left us this invigorating record of a decisive event and address:

While he was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him; so he went in and sat at the table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.

“But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! for you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places. Woe to you! for you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it.” [Luke 11: 37-44; RSV]

Prophetic religion, in contrast to the religion of mere amiability, has ever in diverse ways cried out: “Beware of the clergy!” My own first word as one who seeks to live a religious life must ever be a word against religion’s worst enemy, religion. My first word as a clergyman must be a word against the clergy, of which I am one. When Billy Graham brought his crusade of archaic fundamentalism into New York City, the Protestant clergy of almost all denominations, large and small, joined the bandwagon to support his cause. Protestant clergy of all persuasions graced the platform of piety. Radical questions about the validity of Graham’s streamlined yet old-fashioned revivalism were deemed out of order. In America’s major metropolis, the Protestant clergy closed ranks in a crusade whose victory, said The Christian Century , a vigorous, nondenominational Protestant weekly, would set American reli gion back more than fifty years. Apart from Reinhold Niebuhr and the Century, one could find very few outspoken, independent critics of the Graham crusade.

This situation was not atypical. Be positive, eternally positive, say the clergy and the people. How many Americans have ever heard a sermon which spoke in praise of doubt? An all-too-common maxim of the clergy is: leave your doubts in the study when you enter the pulpit. As if their hearers could not bear to hear the truth! As if the congregation needed to take refuge in traditional illusions—in a lazy, meandering faith which refuses to grapple with the doubts of modern man. Across the pulpits of America three words are written in a bloodless, invisible ink: PROPHETS NOT WANTED.

Some years ago, Thomas Jefferson noted the lethargy of the clergy in moving beyond the status quo toward an actual democracy. On the basis of his experience and observation, he concluded that “the clergy, by getting themselves established by law and engrafted into the ma chine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” Alexander Hamilton wrote, with reference to the established churches: “What influences in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil Author ity: in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.”

Almost alone among the churches, the liberal religious heritage has not brimmed with affirmation devoid of the critical temper. Without a full and freely flowing measure of the courage to doubt, the liberal movement in religion would never have sprung into being. As heirs of the Protestant spirit, we have kept the edge of rational and prophetic criticism carefully honed. Although the burning stake was his lot, Michael Servetus was not afraid to declare his honest doubts. In writing On the Errors of the Trinity, he observed:

How much this tradition of the Trinity has, alas! been a laughing-stock to the Mohammedans, only God knows. The Jews also shrink from giving adherence to this fancy of ours, and laugh at our foolishness about the Trinity…. And not only Mohammedans and Hebrews, but the very beasts of the field, would make fun of us did they grasp our fantastical notion, for all the works of the Lord bless the one God.

If we turn to the most notable champions of the liberal religious outlook in this country, we find the same awareness of faith’s deep demand for doubt. William Ellery Channing, in his discourse on “Spiritual Freedom,” gave ample recognition of the positive power of religion, interpreting it as “the mightiest agent in human affairs,” to which “belongs pre-eminently the work of freeing and elevating the mind.” At the same time, Channing noted that;

Intolerance always shelters itself under the name and garb of religious zeal…. Let religion be seized on by individuals or sects, as their special province; let them clothe themselves with God’s prerogative of judgment; let them succeed in enforcing their creed by penalties of law or penalties of opinion; let them succeed in fixing a brand on virtuous men, whose only crime is free investigation; and religion becomes the most blighting tyranny which can establish itself over the mind.

The worst enemy of religion is religion, and an obligation is laid upon us to meet and to rout this enemy. How can this be done?

The first obligation of free men and women is to exercise the courage to doubt. Here is strange doctrine indeed! Religion, we are told, is defense of faith. I would suggest, however, that doubt is faith’s hidden affirmation. The women and men of noblest faith have been those of strongest doubt. Out of Gautama’s doubts about the prevailing Hinduism of his day has sprung one of our major world faiths, Buddhism. Out of the doubts of Socrates emerged the vital intellectual force of Western civilization. Out of the doubts of Jesus about the established religion of his day came both his crucifixion and the Christian faith. Out of the doubts of Luther arose Protestantism’s fighting faith. Out of the doubts of Freud and Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Whitehead is coming now a New Reformation in religion, a New Reformation open to the demands of world civilization. Forever out of doubt grows faith.

In such a setting, then, we need not only the classical emphasis of the Epistle of James concerning faith and works; we need also a new fusion—of faith and doubt. Modern man’s will to believe is twisted out of shape unless it is tempered by the courage to doubt. Doubt is the modern citadel of freedom, standing in eternal opposition to tyranny’s idols of infallibility. Courage to doubt is free faith’s vital center. Whosoever would be fully human must be a doubter. Encounter with doubt is eternally the price of honest faith. Whoever would ascend to the heights of creative living must first pass through the valley of the shadow of doubt. Capacity for doubt is a measure of humanhood. Ability to doubt is one of the surest guarantees of mature faith.

Out of modern doubt concerning sacred idols of infallibility arose faith in individual freedom of belief as the living center of a responsibly concerned community.

Out of modern doubt concerning walls which thwart the growth of life—walls of national prejudice and pride, of religious exclusiveness, of racial arrogance, of vindictive caste and class—emerged the stand for unrestricted use of reason in religion as the guiding, discipling agent of faith that makes us free and whole, members one of another in a world community of life.

Out of modern doubt concerning every form of tyranny over the mind and body, heart and soul has come faith in generous tolerance of differing religious views and practices within a context of commitment to the democratic process in church and state, school and industry and home.

Out of modern doubt concerning the superstitions, bigotry and idolatry of particular religions comes now a growing faith in Life, uniting people of diverse faiths everywhere in sacred common quest of “truth for the mind; good works for the hands; love for the heart; and for the soul, that aspiring after perfection…which, like lightning in the clouds, shines brightest when elsewhere it is most dark.”

The courage to doubt is the nerve of freedom and of freedom’s faith. The wisdom of doubt is a prelude to faith. The courage to doubt is eternally essential if the church is not to surrender to barbarism but is to serve the Kingdom of God with undiluted strength of heart and hand, mind, and soul. In our warfare against religion’s worst enemy—the enemy who incorporates the life-destroying forces of pride, selfishness, nationalism, war, racism and tyranny—we deeply need the courage to doubt. Only thus can our faith be manifest with powerful relevance in the modern world.