Religion's emerging role in a challenging world

By , Robert Peel is a historian, former newspaperman, literary critic, and editorial consultant to the Church of Christ, Scientist. He is the author of a biographical trilogy on Mary Baker Eddy, the founder, in 1908, of this newspaper.

On the eve of the 20th century, nine years before she launched The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy wrote to the church she had founded in Boston: ''I reluctantly foresee great danger threatening our nation, - imperialism, monopoly, and a lax system of religion.'' Later she added several other issues - including ''industrial slavery'' and ''insufficient freedom of honest competition'' - to the roster of challenges.

These pronouncements clearly emerge from turn-of-the-century America. Behind them lie the Spanish-American and Boer Wars, the ingloriously suppressed Filipino struggle for freedom, the German Empire's ominous naval expansion, the rise of the great trusts, the reform crusades of Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan.

What was rather unusual in Mrs. Eddy's selection of challenges was the coupling of such sociopolitical issues with the waning vigor of the American religious culture she had known for almost 80 years. In another message to her church in 1902 she commented on the fact that within the past decade religion in the United States had passed ''from stern Protestantism to doubtful liberalism, '' and the two phrases suggest the end of an epoch of religious certitude.

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For one thing, Darwinism had shaken the foundations of evangelical faith and biblical literalism more seriously than the whole Age of Reason had been able to do. By the end of the 19th century, traditional Christianity was clearly in retreat before the increasing claims of a basically materialist science.

As one early English Darwinian wrote, ''That man is an animal is the great and special discovery of natural science in our generation.'' Mrs. Eddy herself had written in 1875, ''Mr. Darwin is right with regard to mortal man or matter, but should have made a distinction between these and the immortal, whose basis is Spirit.''

The whole great dispute had a practical bearing on the economic and social struggles of the period. In his book ''Darwin's Century,'' Loren Eiseley argued that all the diverse and seemingly unrelated phenomena of those years were to ''crystallize into a new pattern with Darwinism at the center'' - such phenomena , for instance, as the social Darwinism that borrowed the doctrine of natural selection, or survival of the fittest, to justify the giant monopolies and the reckless exploitation of natural and human resources which marked that period.

Religion as a whole did little to challenge this development. One notable exception was the Social Gospel preached by such younger contemporaries of Mrs. Eddy as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch. Influenced somewhat by the Christian socialists of England and the Continent, this movement, with a significance far beyond its limited popular base, foreshadowed the intense social activism of the mainline Protestant churches in the middle decades of the 20th century.

For all its admirable humanitarian zeal, the Social Gospel illustrated the secularizing tendency that Mrs. Eddy felt was turning the ''stern Protestantism'' of a Christianity modernized but robbed of its radical spirituality.

Her own approach to the secular ills of society was a different one. Deeply religious, it included her starting The Christian Science Monitor in 1908, in her 88th year.

As one of its later editors, Erwin Canham, pointed out in his history of the paper, violence and scandal were the dominant elements in the daily press at that time. Mass circulations had made for mass sensationalism, and most of the press was ill prepared to deal seriously with the incredible complexities - social, political, economic, technological, moral - that lay just ahead. To produce an international daily newspaper with a Christian conscience and a balanced judgment of the world scene might be a vital part of the total contribution that a young church designed to ''reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing'' could make toward the healing of the nations.

The Monitor was never designed to be merely a house organ for the church that publishes it, nor even to be a ''religious'' newspaper in the ordinary sense of the word. Its strictly denominational coverage would turn out to be minimal, and its actual presentation of Christian Science teachings would soon be confined for the most part to a daily religious article on The Home Forum page.

On the other hand, the paper rested squarely on the conviction that transcendent spiritual values are not something apart from and unrelated to the whole great stream of daily events. The way we perceive today's news is a very real factor in shaping the events that are destined to become next week's news. So it was more than a pious cliche when one of its admirers wrote that the paper's uniqueness lay in the fact that ''it approaches every problem with the basic purpose of healing.''

What this meant to some of Mrs. Eddy's own followers is shown in an article by one of them in the church's denominational weekly only one month after the first issue of the Monitor came off the press. What the newspaper was doing, the writer declared, was ''to lift one's eyes to an horizon far beyond one's own doorstep.

''The call to help in the world's thinking,'' she added, ''is no longer something that can pass unheeded, it is an imperative duty. Things we did not like to look at nor think of, problems we did not feel able to cope with, must now be faced manfully.''

American religion as a whole had shared - for all its remaining hellfire components at the popular level - the self-confident optimism that characterized American society at that period. There was general agreement that God had smiled on America. William Dean Howells, then editor of Harper's Magazine, spoke for most of his countrymen when he stated with calm assurance that the smiling aspects of life were the most American.

From the outset the Monitor strove ''manfully'' to avoid this sort of blandness. At the same time, its founder's vision did give a religious basis to the peculiarly American combination of realism and resilience which theologian Paul Tillich would later label as courage rather than mere optimism.

''There is something astonishing,'' Tillich wrote, ''in the American courage for an observer who comes from Europe. . . . A person may have experienced a tragedy, a destructive fate, the breakdown of convictions, even guilt and momentary despair: he feels neither destroyed nor meaningless nor condemned nor without hope. . . . The typical American, after he has lost the foundations of his existence, works for new foundations.''

Or (it might be added) if this admirable American has a religious faith of unusual depth, he may work for a better understanding of the eternal foundations on which alone true progress may rest.

Americans, however, were not the only ones in 1908 who held to their buoyant faith in ultimate progress. Throughout the world a disappearing breed of giants was to be found - lone thinkers and statesmen, prophets and poets - who dreamed of magnificently open-ended possibilities for the liberated human spirit: figures as diverse as Tolstoy and Tagore, Einstein and Schweitzer, Romain Rolland and Henri Bergson, Jan Smuts and Nikolai Berdyaev.

But the path to the ideals they envisioned was not to be one of automatic linear progress. The destructive forces loosed - as well as the dazzling achievements produced - by 20th-century science and technology would have their day. The philosopher Berdyaev, exiled from a Holy Mother Russia which had turned into a bleak prison camp, said it simply: ''I feel that night and shadow are descending on the world.''

When the lights had gone out all over Europe in 1914, few people could even imagine the magnitude of the disaster that would follow. What started out as an arrogant but blundering reversion to the old pattern of armed struggle between rival power blocs was transformed by the very triumphs of mechanized skill and the momentum of global change into ''World War I'' - a nightmare rehearsal for World War II 20 years later.

Where religion weakens, it may not mean that religion disappears. It may only mean that false gods step in. Carl Jung, no enemy to religion, early in this period warned against the return of the more ''horrible'' ancient religions:

''At any time,'' he wrote, ''they may break in upon us with destructive force , in the form of mass-suggestion, for example.''

As early as 1923, one month before the famous beer hall Putsch in Munich, the Monitor ran a front-page interview with Adolf Hitler, the ''Bavarian Mussolini.'' There he was - unknown to the world at large but ''not to be regarded lightly,'' staring ''hard'' into the interviewer's face, making ''excited gestures'' with his hands, raising his voice until ''he almost shouted ,'' then giving himself away in a statement that he emphasized with careful deliberation: ''What has been possible in Italy also is possible in Germany, where the German people, given a Mussolini, would fall down on their knees before him and worship him more than Mussolini ever has been worshipped in Italy.''

When Hitler finally came to power, the Monitor correspondent would be one of the first American journalists to be expelled from Germany. Later, in 1941, Christian Science itself would be banned from the Third Reich and many of its religious practitioners imprisoned.

The resilience of the human spirit has never been more sharply tested than in the seven decades since 1914. Taken at its worst, how does the record read? Boom and bust, famine and glut, war and holocaust, Hitler and Stalin, Hiroshima and Vietnam, pollution, drug culture, terrorism. And overshadowing it all, a nuclear madness threatening the very continuance of human history.

Of course, this is far from being the whole story. Former articles in this series have borne witness to the magnificent advances in the past 75 years: intellectual bonds burst, new worlds opened up by art as well as science, the growing sense of a common humanity, the yearning for universality, the first great steps in exploring outer space.

The founder of this newspaper had predicted as early as 1891 that the time was approaching when the astronomer would ''no longer look up to the stars, - he will look out from them upon the universe.'' But she also wrote of ''incredible good and evil elements'' coming to the surface in a vast ''chemicalization'' of thought as the new age developed. Time would soon make only too clear that the same discoveries that opened the door for space exploration had brought also the possibility of turning this planet into a place of desolation.

As the study of matter and its technological applications gained ascendency over the spiritual convictions of earlier ages, the human spirit seemed strangely adrift.

The sociologists and statisticians tell us plainly that religion as a whole declined in vitality through most of these years. Among the contributing factors named are the materialism attendant upon rising standards of living and the growth of secular thinking within the churches themselves - in such key areas, for instance, as biblical studies and pastoral counseling.

For a time it looked as though religious liberalism was in danger of dissolving entirely into social ethics. While this lent an enlivening religious element to the great moral crusades against racism, sexism, militarism, and social injustice of every kind, it tended to leave human effort (the mechanics of reform) without serious recourse to ''divine grace'' (the inner experience of spiritual regeneration). The end result of this tendency in liberal Christianity was the ''death of God'' theology in the 1960s.

In differing ways and degrees, the secularizing tendency during this time was also at work in most of the great non-Christian religions of the world. At the same time, an era that contains such names as Gandhi, Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa, and Archbishop Helder Camara is not without its witnesses to the continuing power of lives rooted in religion.

It has often been pointed out that the loss of faith in this century has been loss of the traditional formulations of faith. Pervasive doubt has not succeeded in putting out the light and the passionate dedication of great individuals - or the evidence in humbler lives of a reality transcending human formulations.

The scientific revolution precipitated early in the century by relativity and quantum theory has in some ways undermined the naive scientific materialism of the 19th century. The concept of a mind-matter continuum, edging out the previous concept of mind as merely a function of matter, has at least opened the door a crack for the reentry of subjectivity - and transcendence.

For some physicists, to be sure, man as social animal has simply been replaced by man as physical mechanism. But an increasing number of thoroughly modern thinkers, including many natural scientists, have been vigorously questioning materialist positions once assumed to be a necessary part of the scientific enterprise. Some even see the world as standing on the verge of a great spiritual renaissance.

Sociologists of religion are now speaking of a ''crisis of secularism'' as having succeeded the earlier ''crisis of religion.'' Certainly an ordered, sanitized, scientific Utopia of the future is as little credible today as the picture-book ''Heaven'' that Soviet astronauts congratulated themselves for not discovering in their space jaunts.

One unexpected phenomenon is the huge resurgence of religious fundamentalism in recent years. Partly a reaction to the widespread bewilderments and moral ambiguities of the period, it is - in the US, at least - the sign of a craving for absolute religious authority, brooking no doubts. In this case it is focused on a simplistic biblical literalism that repudiates entirely the modern spirit of free inquiry and religious tolerance.

The same tendency in differing forms is evident in other countries and other religions. The Shiite Muslims of Iran spring immediately to mind, but further examples abound in Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, West Bengal, Poland, the Soviet Union , and elsewhere.

Martin E. Marty, probably American religious journalism's ablest analyst of trends in the churches, has written: ''There is no denying that in the 1980s religion is back with a vengeance - and not just in Iran. Most of the burgeoning movements around the world are militantly antimodern, fanatical, and hold in contempt the separation of church and state.''

The fundamentalist upsurge may or may not be regarded as a regressive phenomenon doomed for extinction by the advance of modern culture. Or, given the nuclear arsenals of the two great superpowers, doomed for extinction by the weapons of modern warfare - for which it often shows a strange predilection.

The test of the relevance of religion in today's world may well be its attitude toward war.

Throughout the ages religion at its best has furnished hope and courage in times of crisis, sometimes in words as simple as those of the Hebrew Psalmist: ''He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.'' Religion as refuge and comfort, to be sure, but experienced at its highest as vision and spiritual power.

The Monitor, while written for those of any and all faiths, occasionally speaks editorially out of its innermost religious convictions. At a time when millions stand in dread of atomic holocaust, it may not be inappropriate to quote part of a Christmas message from The Christian Science Board of Directors which appeared as a lead editorial in the Monitor some years ago:

''Peace is more than a promise. It is the creative purpose of God accepted in the mundane affairs of men. It is the structure of things as they are actually meant to be.

''Throughout history it has been assumed that war is inevitable. Conflict seems to be built into the very foundations of the physical universe. A human race trapped in a natural order at war with itself might well seem doomed to ultimate self-destruction. And today the poised instruments of total war suggest this doom as an imminent threat.

''Across the threat cuts an invincible conviction. It is as old as the good news of Christmas, as new as the dawning recognition of millions that war as an instrument of national policy is obsolete. It is the conviction that man is more than a bundle of neural impulses, inherited instincts, and tribal prejudices, destined to act out a brief and futile role on a minor planet. It is a glimpse, in fact, that man is the son of God.

''There is something wonderful abroad in human thought today. Whether or not men use Christian or even religious terms, they are resisting the suggestion that the self-destruction of the human race is inevitable. If humanity can put the moon beneath its feet, it can put war beneath its feet - immeasurably harder though the latter task may be.

''The promise lies in the recognized fact that peace is the condition of humanity's survival. And - the Christian might add - that it is the natural condition of man as revealed through the Prince of Peace. . . .''

We ignore at our peril what William James calls ''the stubborn, irreducible facts'' of existence. One of the most stubborn and irreducible is the persistent feeling of humanity that spirituality is not superstition - that there is a spirit in man which even an Auschwitz or a Gulag Archipelago cannot entirely quench.

Through the convulsions of this century a quiet stream of spirituality has run. In the last few years there has been a notable turning of layman, pastor, and theologian to this regenerating stream - to the spiritual strengthening and healing and guidance to be found in prayer, humility, discipleship, commitment.

What sociologist Peter Berger some years back called ''A Rumor of Angels'' has become what U.S. News & World Report this year described as ''Religion's New Turn: A Search for the Sacred,'' with one individual after another quoted on the ''yearning for a deeper spirituality,'' for greater ''spiritual depth,'' for ''something more than humanist pieties,'' for ''something missing'' in their ''spiritual depths.''

But spirituality is more than a passing fashion. For the religious believer, it is both direction and path. For the Christian, it is the way both provided and demanded by the Founder of Christianity. For the world, it may be the only sure way to earth's future.

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