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The War and Our Religious Condition

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

Certain factors in the present religious situation appear to justify rather optimistic expectations, and chief among them the sure prospect of far-reaching victory. For Fascism was a revolution pledged to the destruction of every value for which the Christian tradition has contended during two millennia, and its defeat lends us new hope.

The English people, standing alone in defense of freedom during the fearful days of the Battle of Britain, were welded by a mystical faith. On the Continent, the courageous leadership of the Norwegian bishops, and the spiritual stamina of Holland and other occupied countries revealed a moral vitality in modern religion which had long been doubted. Within the Third Reich a religious opposition from both Roman Catholic and Confessional churches maintained at least its interior lines intact against all intimidations of the Nazis. It was this fact which occasioned Mr. Einstein’s confession that the courage of this opposition had revised his former opinion of the worth of organized religion. The Russian people in the fires of their gigantic ordeal have revealed that which their government has officially recognized before the world: that the deliberate attempt over a quarter of a century to eradicate religion from the consciousness of a great people was not successful. From China, though the wanton destruction of religious properties in that much-tried land has at least equalled that in the West, there comes consistent witness of vast growth in Christian influence, under the leadership of a considerable number of the most convinced and sincere Christians in public life.

Among our own countrymen serving by land, sea, and air, on many fronts there is conclusive evidence of a widespread return to religion and a new naturalness in the expression of it. Their letters, plus the testimony of chaplains and officers, show this to be true. Religion as a last resort does not inspire the same confidence in its steady continuance as religion as a first resort. Prayer on a raft has been played up too much in the press. But it is indisputable that many in the armed forces have found religious, reality to a new degree. In the administration of Holy Communion at one of our camps where men knew they were leaving that very night for a dangerous assignment afar, it was strongly felt that war presses home questions to which religion alone offers an answer, and tests for which religion alone prepares.


Though among our population in general the signs are less definite, certain new factors in our religious situation may be listed, each of which is of far-carrying importance.

Professor Reinhold Niebuhr has suggested that the prime obstacle to religious faith during the recent past has been the fact that men already adhered to a faith: they believed in history. Things may be bad now, men thought, but they will grow better. We are moving ahead inevitably, irresistibly. By now that faith should be already shattered. In Germany we witness not a return to barbarism but a capacity for appalling iniquity in a highly civilized culture. As individuals we do not necessarily grow better as we grow older; we find with the years new and devious insinuations of the mystery of iniquity within us. If the German debacle clears away a false faith that occupied the ground and provokes a deeper reading of reality, it may open the way for a new understanding of our Hebrew-Christian tradition, and we may stand again beside the men of the first century as those who know that they grope in darkness and seek a religion of salvation.

The fight for freedom has occasioned new inquiries into the nature and origins of democracy. It is now clearer that we owe democracy not only to the classical tradition inherited from Greece, but also to the Hebrew prophetic recognition of the dignity of the common man. Though in the framework of monarchy, the seeds of the democratic process are manifest in Nathan’s right to say to King David: “Thou art the man”; in no other monarchy was there recognition of the right of a subject to rebuke a king. Christianity, which prompted St. Paul’s ringing charge: “Stand forth therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,” has nurtured a soil congenial to democratic procedures. The dignity of the common man, the equality of men in the sight of God, and the individual’s responsibility are important concepts for democracy. The great slogans of the French Revolution, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, were woven into our fundamental charters of government by men of Christian culture who valued their Christian connotations. Jacques Maritain has recently urged with vigor the importance of fraternity in the Christian sense if we hope to see tlemocracy work. Professor George Thomas of Princeton concluded a recent essay on democracy with the contention that the Christian doctrine of love is the true preservative of democracy.

A democracy that rested on political individualism alone would probably tend to destroy itself. Only as the obligations of the individual receive an accent at least equal to that upon the rights of the individual can this venture in cooperative living succeed. We have every reason to perceive that democracy is seriously threatened by our secularism. Freedom will give way to regimentation whenever our moral and spiritual allegiance is too tenuous to supply voluntary restraints and that complex of vision, judgment, patience, courage of utterance, disinterestedness, and readiness to sweat and serve and suffer in the public good which has alone made the democratic hope tenable. Should there develop among our youth the suspicion, which tortured the consciousness of German youth, that life is meaningless, that the moral values enshrined in Christianity are obsolete and insincere, the United States, despite triumph in global war, would soon be stricken by a cancer within her national life. Democracy, which we have often considered the patron and protector of religion, is religion’s ward. For without the perpetual guardianship of a vital and sincere Christian faith, democracy has yet to manifest the capacity to survive.

The era between the two world wars marked an effectual revolt against the central contention of Christianity: its injunction to sacrificial living. This came to be considered out-moded or morbid, as men appealed to science to provide endless means for new material indulgence. But in these war years we have watched a vast revision of attitude. Discipline and sacrifice in a great cause have given a new tone to personal living. All sorts of people in their daily discipline are finding the exhilaration of living for that which is beyond themselves.

The past tendency to bound our thinking by this mundane sphere is also giving way to a new perspective on human life, envisaging eternity. One cannot send one’s dearest to the uncertainties of modern combat without raising Job’s ancient question: “If a man die, shall he live again?” None more than modern people have felt the longing for security, but earth’s geography can never afford ultimate guarantees. As Rupert Brooke found in the last war, so men find today that security is ultimately to be conceived as a spiritual value.

The war has precipitated some awkward questions which we always preferred to postpone. Principles of freedom and brotherhood advertised to the world in the Atlantic Charter now embarrass us because they have never been fully operative in our own affairs. We compromise them by our attitudes toward racial minorities and foreign peoples, and in the areas of our special privilege. We are probably sincere in calling equality of opportunity part of the American creed; but where we qualify it by racial discrimination, we suffer a bad conscience and are vulnerable. We have here, in what we call a race problem or a color problem, really a moral problem for the white man’s conscience. Our conventional amendments of our Christian principles are now under new pressures as we suffer from new tensions within the body politic and within the mind. This, of course, has formidable religious significance. Perhaps we were unconscious of the degree to which our Christian culture had lost its integrity, and had thus grown insipid and weak.

The great Christian leaders of the past century thought and worked in world terms. The nineteenth century saw incomparably the greatest Christian advance in history. That advance may be measured not only in terms of geographical expansion to the remote corners of the globe, but in the spread of humanitarian laws and customs, and the mitigation of man’s inhumanity to man. The missionary dynamic slowed down because it succumbed to indifference and suspicion at home. Travellers returned with reports of unimpressive missionaries they had met, or with prejudices absorbed into their tender minds, unseasoned by convictions, during idle hours, in ships’ bars. But recently many an American airman, soldier, or sailor, tended by natives who are humane and considerate Christians, has reason to be impressed by that which has delivered him from the practices of their savage ancestors. The stock of the missionaries, who pioneered in such remote mission stations, is rising on the market of our opinion. So thoughtful a world traveller as Wendell Willkie, by empirical observation, found his mind forced to the conclusion that Jesus formulated nineteen hundred years ago: the field is the world. This newfound sense of human solidarity, in the bonds of blood, mutual dependence, spiritual affinity, and human destiny, of which our world-roving returned soldiers and sailors will be chief exponents, bids fair to alter profoundly the religious patterns in Main Street, America.

There is a new seriousness in the effort to achieve a reunion of the Christian churches, and co-operation among all religious agencies. This is a factor of the first magnitude in its religious significance. Christians of every denomination are being forced to recognize that the fracturing of Christendom into isolated fragments has immeasurably impaired the effectiveness of the Christian church in its world-wide task of drawing men together into a world community through moral and spiritual understanding. Now, after centuries of the divisive tendency, the tide has definitely turned. Many experiments in the reuniting of churches have already been effective. Others are in prospect. And the World Council of Churches is a newly established factor of co-ordination.

Bigotry, the besetting sin of the ecclesiastical mind, and the individualistic tendency of the natural man, hamper’ the task. A traveller in the South once wondered why there should be two colored Baptist churches in a small Georgia town. He put his question to a Negro, who offered this explanation:

“They fell out on matters of doctrine. The folks in the Church on dat corner, they hold with the Bible dat Pharoah’s daughter discovered Moses in de bullrushes. But in dat Church dar, dey say: ‘Dat’s what she says.’”


Despite the favorable evidences of mighty forces working within the religious consciousness of our time, we cannot omit a realistic reckoning of adverse factors. Unquestionably, the last war resulted in a world-wide unsettling of men’s confidence in their religious institutions and in irresponsible revolt against religious standards and spirit. Though the ancient Greeks’ epic defense of their liberties against the Persian invasion toned up that people for their golden age and left us one instance for encouragement, historically wars have occasioned waves of idealism and religious revival in their earlier stages, only to end in an aftermath of disillusionment and degradation.

We should not blink the fact that the effect of war is coarsening, corrupting, and wearing to the human spirit. A major returning to Princeton on furlough from two years of air combat at Guadalcanal and the South Pacific area, warned our volunteer emergency police force that the instincts of criminality were also unleashed by war. As an instance, he said that among the planes under his command, only one had retained its original clock. Clocks, and even emergency rations, were constantly being stolen out of our planes, though every man knew how heavily a pilot depended on his clock for navigation over the trackless wastes of the Pacific.

Who can compute what Europe and Asia will face as they attempt to rebuild an ordered and peaceful society out of the destruction, the poverty, the bitter memories, and vengeful hates of this most cruel of all conflicts? Europeans have already cautioned us about the note of shallow optimism or even complacency which they sense in our thinking. Not the least among the enormous problems left as the legacy of war are its moral and spiritual effects. Though Dean Inge has the reputation of being gloomy in his predictions, his penetrating mind justifies some attention to his words:

For those who dare look the facts in the face, their hopes [of progress and perfectibility] are finally shattered. Contemporary Europe has committed suicide. The sun is setting in the West and rising in the East. Asia will have her long deferred revenge upon her arrogant younger sister. The reckless squandermania of our Government is the prelude to bankruptcy, the repudiation, in one form or another, of public debts. The gifts of bread and circuses to the masses will end as they did in the Roman Empire. The parasite will destroy its host. “Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves.”

The new Dark Age, which may or may not be a long one, will certainly generate a revival of religion. . . . I have hopes that the uses of adversity will not be altogether sour, though they can hardly be sweet. . . . There is not the slightest danger that the deceitfulness of riches will trouble us again.

There is certainly no ground for complacency about the postwar world. The moment about which one has the greatest apprehension is the day when the men come home. And since many have already returned from the war theaters, there is now factual evidence ready for our thoughtful examination.

At the redistribution center for the Army Air Forces at Atlantic City, New Jersey, thousands of returned airmen, among America’s finest youth, whose courage is beyond question, have been under observation. When they arrive, many seem in pretty good shape, and in good mental condition. But after three weeks in this country they frequently manifest some sort of psychological shock. Although this is partly a delayed nervous reaction from past strains, their officers are studying another factor. These men meet here again the force of the selfish materialism still operative in America and its stark contrast to the dedication which they knew abroad hits them with terrific impact. They are little disposed to speak critically of this. But clearly the bottom drops out from the belief that the country is solidly behind them. They grow serious, subdued, aloof.

Red Cross workers report this instance as typical. A young pilot kept the picture of his girl with him throughout his missions in Europe, and lived for the day of seeing her again. But after two or three dates he withdraws. Her chatter about petty interests, clothes, and dances, and pay checks, now leaves him cold. They seem to have nothing in common anymore. All that he says is: “Well, perhaps I’ve changed.”

With some of the husbands the matter is more serious. Sometimes in preference to staying out their first furlough at home, they return to seek again the companionship of their comrades who understand. They have found a chasm, something like the chasm at the Cross. For the true passion of Jesus was perhaps not in the physical suffering He endured, but the soul-loneliness of giving Himself utterly for people to whom this sacrifice appeared not to matter. Our returned heroes as they stand on the corners of Broadway, surveying the crowds, may be silently thinking: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?”

A highly competent observer just returned from association with the men of our Eighth and Ninth Air Forces reports that their attitude toward labor leaders who fomented strikes and held up desperately needed planes is violent, and forebodes sinister developments on their return. These men see nothing but a great betrayal.

Doubtless, many men will return to American homes where Christian standards both in war and peace will give them a sense of moral support. But these men, in the absolute dedication of their lives, have tasted the high experience of the uncompromised life. And they want to find its counterpart in the spiritual life of their homeland. But even among so-called Christians, our soldiers coming home find compromise everywhere: in politics, in business, in social life, even in their churches and their homes. They have placed a grave responsibility upon us. For they have offered their lives that we may live in freedom. And God have mercy on us if our attitudes and quality of dedication disillusion those to whom we already owe an immeasurable debt.

When one asks oneself the deepest present question-why in the providence of a just and good God did humanity have to suffer this agony of two wars within a generation?—what is the answer? not that man must be weaned away from his blind belief in the competence of man, unaided, unrestrained, or uninspired, to manage his own destiny? Even through suffering, the arrogance of the centuries in which our material structure of civilization was building had to be brought low. We know in our hearts that we have been spared the ultimate bitterness. At least three times in these years, at Dunkirk, in the re-alignment of Russia, and after Pearl Harbor, we could hardly fail to be aware of the hand that moves the destinies of earth. But secularism has not been rolled back. Has the lesson really been learned? When the men come back, will it not be to disillusionment again?

Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr on his return from England suggested that the British, intensely eager to appraise rightly their two great allies, consider America and Russia to be strangely alike. These two adolescent giants, each perhaps with only a tenuous understanding of the spiritual tradition of the West, tend to place naive belief in technology, as the power that can master the future problems. This impression comes to our children first in their public-school experience, which the fears of yesterday generally confine to a secular curriculum. The children form the impression that the everyday world is secular. Only the Church cares about religion, only the Church mentions it, only an hour on Sunday is allowed to God. Is it not natural that the Deity becomes in college days a sort of appendix within His universe, that somehow must be explained, or removed? Our young people learn many things about the exterior world, useful things that give them expertness in the machines of war. But inwardly they are often alone, and untutored in all that matters most, sometimes spiritually hungry, usually unfed.

The English know that they too share this danger, for the curse of externality is upon all our vaunted modern culture. A young British correspondent, writing from England about the widespread longing for a better order, a better world, a better life, added that though they were consumed with eagerness for these as ends, they were still careless about the means. Here is the trend that spells the religious predicament of modern man. He can see the fruits of Christianity. He has cause as never before to long for them. Hate and greed, moral cowardice and deceit, presumption and pride have caused this war. The Christian fruits of love, humility, moral courage, sincerity, and good will are essential to world recovery. But how augment the fund of these things? Devotional discipline has been left to a few devout old ladies who slip into a church on week days and discern the Dayspring from on high who once visited us. He, who was yet a young man on His Cross, and who risen is ever young, who became the source of power to renew the race, and enlist men in the great quests and struggles of the centuries, is largely a stranger to the young, to whom He first came.

They have been taught to think of Him as celebrated among the teachers of ethical standards. But that He came in a more intimate role, to meet man’s need at a deeper level, they hardly know. Many know something about Him, Few know Him. His very language is in a sphere of human experience to which their vocational type of business and scientific education affords them slight aptitude. When they see the fruits, as they do too rarely, they respond to them. But they are not shown why these fruits are rarely realized. “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”

Our religious situation today seems broadly parallel to the situation in agriculture a few years ago. Men in their hunger always wanted the fruits of the earth. But none had ever told them why the crops were so meagre. Only recently by patient attention to the seeds, the fertilizing elements, the soils, have men like George Washington Carver, in deep reverence for nature, extended our human opportunity to satisfy man’s need of bread.

Is there any warrant for optimistic expectation of the religious future until there is a revolution in our attention from this externality toward inwardness, by which in the deep places of man’s spirit he finds his way to the source of his life? ‘There has recently been brought to us the beginning of new understanding of those dark contradictions within each human being by reason of which we do not progress by setting up purposes and then realizing them. The human story is characterized by a tragic chasm between aspiration and achievement; we encounter some dark resistance within. Until we understand that and find the way of mastery, there is no system of ordering society which we shall not betray. Nicholas Berdyaev has given to this a statement which, though extreme, is a good counterpoise to many fallacious assumptions:—”The good must be conceived in terms of energy and not of purpose. . . . Man realizes the good not because he has set himself the purpose of doing so; but because he is good or virtuous; i.e., because he has in him the creative energy of goodness. The source is important and not the goal.”

Twenty-five centuries ago Jeremiah, caring deeply for his people, ardently hoping for them a more fulfilling experience of life, expressed God’s judgment on his civilization: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Perhaps we should have continued building our own inadequate cisterns if we had been allowed. But the God of history has led us in this world tragedy by ways which we should not have chosen but which may prove of far consequence.

The Reverend Dr. William L. Tucker astonished an in-terchurch gathering in Princeton by telling of an experience in Siberia where in 1919 he was working for the Red Cross among war prisoners. In the most desolate of places, where in winter the frosting on panes never changed during the long Arctic night, these prisoners, ill-clothed and underfed, had spent four or five years. The Red Cross received a donation of fifty thousand rubles. A small committee of the prisoners were invited to confer about the expenditure of this, sum. An Austrian officer brought in their opinion: “We have endured five years of hunger. Hunger gnaws man. But we have found that man can endure hunger. The thing man cannot endure is the greater hunger of the soul. Man cannot master despair. We ask that you spend a large part of the sum on a chapel that may be used by the Protestants among the prisoners, and provide a place for the sacraments of our Roman Catholic priest.”

Our material civilization has somehow stifled that hunger. But if what we now undergo at least causes us to desire it, we shall have found again the key to the religion of Him who began by assuring those who hungered and thirsted, and then promised those that sought that they should find.

The Gospels never gave us warrant for Utopian hopes of a perfect society the day after tomorrow. The future will unfold in conflict among the dark legions of carelessness and callousness, of inertia and blindness and prejudice and pride on the one hand, resisting the prophetic insights and heroic labors in man’s behalf of those who in the new age are anointed with that strange God-given passion to serve humanity by opening the way to God. Many thousands of obscure people of no reputation will contribute mightily to the struggle to realize the Peace of God, while some of great reputation will subtly thwart and betray it. Struggle and conflict must continue so long as our human occupancy of this planet lasts. But the glory of it all will not consist primarily in some far-off accomplishment. To those of religious insight the struggle itself has meaning. And though constantly frustrated in their most ardent hopes, Christians may contemplate the future with confidence. For this they know, that whatever the shape of things to come, there will be on this planet a future worthy of its God.


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