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The James Luther Adams Papers
The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993
Part 3: The War of the Gods
Each age of humanity has its own illusions. One of the characteristic illusions of recent history has been the assumption that our civilization has progressed beyond the possibility of engaging in a war over religion. The proposition that “people will no longer fight about religion” became part of the modern Credo, the implication being that religion no longer matters enough for us to fight about it. The facts, however, do not support this comforting belief, for religion—even the religion that people will fight about—has a strange way of intruding itself into the most civilized societies. In actuality, our age is now engulfed in one of the bloodiest struggles over religion known to history. Indeed, our period might well be characterized as the New Wars of Religion.
In appearance, the conflicts of our age are more directly concerned with rival economic, racial and political creeds than were the Wars of Religion in the seventeenth century, but in reality they are the age-old religious conflicts. Indeed, it is precisely in these areas of economic, racial and political struggle that one finds today the best evidence for the familiar adage that “people are incurably religious.” This aphorism has, of course, been most frequently quoted in support of the idea that we cannot in the long run escape or resist the claims of true religion, and there is some basis for this idea. The Hound of Heaven “on following feet” has again and again prevented people from finding enduring value apart from devotion to the Highest, but the adage has a much broader application than that. It suggests also what many modern people have naively overlooked, namely, that there is such a thing as religion in reverse; there is a certain perverseness in human nature which causes people to be religious in spite of themselves. When we do not give our highest loyalty to God, we end by surrendering our life to the service of an idol. We are so incurably religious that we abhor the vacuum of religious experience—the empty altar. Or to change the figure, if we unseat the Most High from the throne, then inevitably we set up a substitute. A few people here and there do for a time escape the necessity of choosing between the Most High and a substitute,—seemingly they do not feel the need of the lighted altar, but the escape is only temporary. They too are in the end willy nilly drawn into the idolatry of their tribe, for every tribal god that is worshipped by the many finally demands sacrifice (and gets it) from the few who have remained “above the battle.” No one is ultimately immune to the contagion of the false religions or exempt from the destruction they bring.
Human history seems to be a history of the recurrent fall of old tribal gods and the rise of new ones. Half-gods are Protean creatures. They disappear only to reappear in new forms. Observing this recurrent tendency in the history of the race, the philosopher David Hume once suggested that the “natural” religion of humanity is polytheism. Certainly there is much in human history, even in modern history, to support this thesis.
What, after all, is polytheism? It is the giving of absolute status and loyalty to limited, finite objects, to deified sticks and stones, to rivers and mountains, to sun and stars, or—if we turn our attention to “civilized” polytheisms—it is the giving of absolute loyalty to such local deities as the state, the race, the economic system. All of these are forms of idol worship, whether primitive or “civilized.” But the idols never remain in “place.” Polytheism is never static. A war of the gods always ensues, and a hierarchy of the gods usually emerges with one god on the top, but the competition does not end even then. This is the “cunning” of polytheism. Having conquered in its own tribe, having fed on ambition, the “crescent” god of one tribe wants to be the god of other tribes. Therefore, the struggle begins again, the struggle between the primary gods of the different tribes. The different local deities enter into internecine struggle.
Precisely this process has been taking place in our time. Within each of the nations of the modern world a number of gods have been vying for first place, the gods of blood and soil, the gods of the economic systems, and the gods of the State. They may not be given the names of gods. Nevertheless, they gain possession of the inner life of the tribe and provide the dynamic or the “drives” of the common life. These drives constitute modern religions, pushing people into the destructive vortex of the competing polytheisms, the war of the gods. Indeed, this powerful, self-destructive impulse operates as a sort of “civilized” demonic possession impelling the group to race down the Gadarene slope to catastrophe. This is what is happening on the human stage at this moment. The devotion of the different tribes to bourgeois capitalism, to imperialism, to the “superior race” or to the omnipotent state, has brought the old “cunning” of polytheism into play. Each of the creeds that has set up its bloated claims to allegiance has called forth a struggle that is no less savage than that between primitive tribes of the forest. Having attributed highest value to incompatible ultimates, people must fight.
No doubt the greatest god of the modern age is nationalism. A French writer of a generation ago suggested that one can tell what the religion of any group of people is by determining for what they die. If we apply this test, he added, we must conclude that nationalism is the average modern man’s religion. It is for nationalism, our other religion, that modern citizens have died by the millions. The American, the British, the French, the German, the Japanese nationalistic prides and ambitions coupled with the inflated claims of imperialism, of monopoly capitalism, of racism, of Fascism, and of Communism, have brought the local deities of the planet and their “possessed” devotees into a life-and-death struggle that threatens to decimate the peoples of the earth. It is true that not all these tribal deities deserve the same rank in the modern pandemonium of the gods. Some of them are more largely compounded of death than others. Some may even have the promise of “new life” within them, but in the light of contemporary history, is not Hume’s suggestion essentially correct that the “natural” religion of humanity is polytheism?
To be sure, the polytheistic tendencies of our time have by no means been confined to the political and economic and racial spheres. Essentially the same sort of absolutism is also to be found in certain religious groups. Certain types of Christianity must be included among the polytheisms: for example, those types of Christianity which have given an absolute status to the Bible “from cover to cover” or to a church that claims to possess the infallible truth once and for all delivered. The point that needs stressing is that almost every place we look today we find incurably religious humanity attributing to things of earth the quality of sovereignty that belongs to God alone.
The iron vice in which all these polytheisms are caught is authoritarianism, the claim that a given form of society or a given and exclusive set of principles is above criticism. In all of these polytheisms, people are asked to submit to some sort of Fuehrer. To ask a radical question is to commit blasphemy. To assert that no one group of people has a monopoly on truth or destiny is to be guilty of “cosmopolitanism” and of disloyalty to the “superior race,” or of ideological defense of the middle class, or of a lack of patriotism, or of the sin against the Holy Ghost.
In this arena of the war of the gods with its bedlam of power politics, the democratic churches—with their faith in the God of the prophets and of Jesus—have a special mission to perform. It is their mission, and the mission of other groups that have elective affinities with them, to point to a way beyond these polytheisms. How can this happen?
The democratic or congregationalist churches make their final appeal to reason and a critical estimate of the evidence. This is another way of saying that congregationalism recognizes no specific authority as absolute. For the congregationalist, life cannot have enduring value if either church or state, whether a Holy Book or an economic system is given some special privilege whereby it may impose from above the form which the society shall take or the limits of freedom that are to be observed. The setting up of any such external authority is in actuality a presumptuous and even blasphemous attempt on the part of some ruling class or clique (priestly or racial, economic or political) to usurp the place of God. No free people’s worship can be given to any people-made God. This does not mean that the democratic or congregationalist churches reject or neglect the Bible or the Christian tradition. It does mean that these churches were among the early fighters for freedom, freedom from hierarchical authority, freedom from “cover to cover” Biblicism, freedom of the church from state control. The congregationalists were also among the early fighters for freedom to worship God according to conscience (and even for freedom not to worship God if one chooses), freedom under the great Taskmaster’s eye to form the kind of church and society which conscience and justice and reverence demand.
The freedom of the congregationalists reaches even to the doctrines that articulate the common faith, for they assert the freedom to discuss the doctrines of the faith as against being told what to think. They recognize that the symbols of their faith are themselves earthen vessels and thus subject to criticism and change. They therefore expect that there will always be devout people who will not be able to use the traditional symbols without embarrassment or reservation. Unity does not require uniformity. Hence, the congregationalists refuse to dogmatize about how God shall be defined. Each usually has his or her own opinion but recognizes that she or he may be mistaken and that a neighbor, whose notion of God differs in many details, may be right. Each new insight into Nature which science brings us, each new experience of the human heart, each new discovery of the intellect, each new experiment in the social process, and each new movement in history, may add to the revelation of the Divine.
Thus the congregationalist or democratic churches stand in a prophetic tradition that permits, nay even requires, self-criticism for the sake of its own health and vitality; but they also stand in a creative tradition that asserts that we can fulfill our destiny as human beings only when we rise above the absolutisms of race, state, and church to the worship of a God whom no individual or group can domesticate and impress into their own private service. Freedom is a gift of God, and the freedom that we derive from God cannot manifest itself with deepest meaning or in richest fulfillment unless it is integrally related to the creative power upon which all existence depends, the power that reconciles and overcomes the conflicts of the half-gods and the idolatries, the power that sustains and transforms the world.
The congregationalist churches, therefore, appeal to something beyond and greater than humanity as the basis of their freedom. As a guide and check to this freedom, they also rely upon a love that in some degree inheres in everything that exists: upon a love that is a gift to us, a love that we freely appropriate in the very continuance and enrichment of our existence, a love that takes possession of us and that will not let us go, a love that transforms our vanity, our perverted freedom, our selfishness, into a cooperative growing comradeship between human beings and the God of all love. Faith in this God of love induces a loving spirit among us, and faith in this God of freedom induces among us a spirit of freedom. These are the two foci of congregationalism as an immanent force in human society.
Christianity as understood by the democratic churches is essentially concerned with both the individual and society, but it is not limited to any one society nor wholly subject to any state. It is essentially universal and transcends all national lines both in space and in time. It has to do with the local and temporal and with the universal and eternal. For this reason it is necessarily and radically opposed to every sort of polytheism or idolatry. If the half-gods are to be overcome, that will happen through a free or democratic fellowship of freedom and love among congregationalists themselves, as well as between them and those of “other folds.” Indeed, amidst the war of the gods, congregationalists demand that they be an inner fellowship dedicated to a larger human fellowship and companionship with God, the ground of all true fellowship, the author and finisher of all true faith, whose law is love and whose service is perfect freedom.