TODAY'S RELIGION: HAS IT GOT THE MESSAGE? AND IS ANYBODY LISTENING?
Clergymen of three different faiths met recently for an informal wide-ranging discussion of the place of religion in today’s world. By coincidence rather than design, each of the nationally known churchmen represented the so-called “liberalwing of his denomination. They were Rabbi Abraham L. Feinberg, rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto; the Right Reverend Ernest Marshall Howse, moderator of the General Council of the United Church of Canada; and the Reverend Frank Stone, director of the Catholic Information Centre, Toronto. Here is a transcript of their conversation with Borden Spears, editor of Maclean’s.
SPEARS: With Christmas—the most basic of the church's festivals— approaching, let me ask this question: is Christianity losing or gaining ground? Not only in terms of numbers, that is, but as a living faith in the Christian nations, is Christianity coming or going? HOWSE: Statistically, it’s losing. It’s losing largely because the population is growing fastest in areas that are not Christian. It would be losing even more spectacularly except that usually in counting Christianity we count all South America as Christian, and even to a Roman Catholic this would not be quite an accurate description. But there is a somewhat smaller percentage of Christians in relation to the total population of the world now than when the modern missionary movement began shortly before the turn of the eighteenth century. So we are losing ground; we’re now losing ground rapidly. Every day the contrast is clearer. STONE: I think we're losing ground through natural population increase. Ï would say that in the Christian countries, though, we are not losing. Actually there's a restoration taking place — perhaps renewal is a better word, a re-examination of Christianity. This is evidenced by the work of Vatican Council and also by the interest of, say, the World Council of Churches and other groups in restudying Christianity's relevance to today’s problems. They are also looking at those countries that have never really tasted Christianity — for instance Africa, India, China, Japan. But I certainly agree that we are a minority; there are two billion non-Christians in the world and roughly a billion Christians. SPEARS: This is pretty discouraging for the Christian church, isn’t it? HOWSE: I think all missionaries agree that in Africa, Islam is gaining converts about ten times as fast as Christianity. This is significant because the historic picture has been that once a people adopt any of the great religions they do not convert in any significant numbers. For example Muslims do not become Christians, Jews do not become Christians, Christians do not become Hindus or Buddhists. So if in Africa, Islam is gaining much faster than Christianity, this may set a permanent pattern for the future.
FEINBERG: Since Judaism has no missionary program we can't chart progress or recession in those terms. Statistically. Judaism is losing ground because the Jewish people have been reduced, first by Hitlerism and then by a low birth rate. In fact the proportion of Jews to the general population in North America is shrinking. Conversions to other faiths, however, are more than balanced, you'll be interested to know, by an increasing trickle of Christians to Judaism, chiefly through inter-
marriage. If anything, probably more Christians are going into Judaism officially than the reverse. It must be said, however, that the Jewish religion as an organized entity has expanded like other formal faiths. Many new synagogues, new congregations and large memberships with accelerated activity are undoubtedly indicative of, let us say. a keener “official" interest. But I suspect that this reflects architecture and arithmetic rather than genuine spirituality. Furthermore, I sense a loss of depth; the expansion has been horizontal, not vertical. HOWSE: There is an interesting fact about the Protestant churches in the United States, and the pattern is roughly parallel in the Protestant section of Canada. At the time of the American revolution only about five percent of the people were church members. At the turn of the twentieth century about twenty percent were. In the interwar period about forty percent were, and we've now passed sixty percent. There's never been any time in the history of the American religion when so many Protestants have had enough interest to be at least nominally connected with the church. Most people assume that in the time of their grandparents many more people were church members. This is not true.
SPEARS: Does this indicate to you that the faith of the people generally is stronger?
HOWSE: NO, I think that this is partly an effect of World War II. In the crises of that time the revelation of the evils of which civilized man was capable brought a heightened sense that religion amounted to something. People began to feel that they should stand up and be counted for religion; and against the kinds of irréligion that horrified them. SPEARS: Going back a stage, is the Christian missionary movement losing its steam?
STONE: Well. 1 think we are marshaling our efforts better now. Catholics and Protestants are working more closely together. There will probably be more sharing of medical facilities and that kind of thing, and reducing expenses. Our missionary efforts certainly have to be stepped up. And missionary work today applies not only to other countries but to our own great cities. For instance, we speak of Paris as a missionary city today. HOWSE: Much of the ferment in the world today is a direct result of Christian missions. Christian missionaries have been the educators of the world. Think of the great universities in the Middle East. In Africa until quite recent times eighty-five percent of all education was in mission schools. In India until recently eighty-five percent of nurses were products of mission hospitals. Of all the written languages in the world today, more than half have been reduced to writing by Christian missionaries. I heard a distinguished African, Sir Francis Ibiam, say that there is not a single African in a position of importance in a new nation in Africa today, who does not owe at least part, in some cases all, of his education to Christian missions.
FEINBERG: The medical missionary and the teaching missionary have been a tremendous boon to these underdeveloped and backward nations. SPEARS: They have to a great extent replaced the proselytizer. The man who goes out simply to preach the gospel is now in the background. FEINBERG: It's a form of clerical peace corps, isn't it? STONE: The social mission of the church must be more widely proclaimed. The social teaching of the church is part of the gospel message. Health, good homes, security are all a part of the /continued overleaf
~TOD/W'S continued/ church’s teaching. Missionaries Dr-i //'■>//-'* A# today must avoid nationalism and respect the ntLIblUlM culture of the countries they work in. We must not insist on other countries learning some of our customs, such as how to play hockey and baseball. In all things we are to co-operate with them, consonant with Christian principles.
FEINBERG: A significant development has taken place recently in the rabbinate. Some rabbis would like to revive the early Jewish missionary zeal. The Jewish missionary movement was quite strong until the time of Justinian, who made it punishable by death either to proselytize Christians or to become a convert to Judaism. Personally, I think rabbinical missionaries to the Gentile world would be a grave mistake; I would like to convert Jews to Judaism first.
HOWSE: And 1 would like to convert Christians to Christianity. FEINBERG: The very idea of spreading the gospel to others rests on the premise that you have the key to salvation. Such assurance is not central to the fabric of Jewish belief. Once you try to persuade people to join your ranks on such a basis, you must first convince yourself that what you have to offer is better. I’m not sure this is healthy. SPEARS: I am sure the others would disagree with you. Doesn’t each of you feci that you have the answer?
HOWSE: Well, I wouldn’t say that I have the answer, in the sense that no one else had any answer. Nobody has full and exclusive knowledge of the truth of God — not Roman Catholic nor Jew nor Protestant. All sorts of people who arc neither Christian nor Jew live righteous and godly lives and strive for peace and brotherhood among men. When I remember Jesus parable of the Last Judgment, I think that some of them may be more justified than many Christians who say, “Lord, Lord.’ The Buddhists at the present time are raising money to educate Buddhist priests to come to Europe to teach the gospel of peace, because they think we Westerners are warlike people. Well, even though I could not be one of them, I say good for the Buddhists. STONE: Christianity is historical in origin. It’s based on the personality of Christ; Buddhism and Islam express more of a philosophy. They admit to a variety of doctrines, while the heart of Christianity is the Person of Christ. He is the central character in the history of salvation. The Jews are our spiritual fathers. We are founded on them; we are part of them. As Pope Pius XII said, “Spiritually we are Semites.” HOWSE: I would agree with Father Stone on that, although I think that the essence of Christianity is not acceptance of a given philosophy, but rather devotion to a spiritual lord. This devotion is a contagion which a Christian spreads, whether he be a St. Francis Xavier, a Tom Dooley, a Livingstone or a General Booth.
SPEARS: IS it possible for a non-Christian — say a Buddhist or a Moslem — to go to heaven? Do all non-Christians go to hell? HOWSE: That’s an appalling idea. True, some people may hold it. But how can any sane person think that God has a little group who are going to eternal bliss while all the rest are going to eternal damnation? STONE: Heaven is primarily the condition of being an active member of the divine family, of God's family. We naturally move to become members of the human family and then the family of nations. I think it is sad that so many people disregard opportunities to become more and more part of the human family and the divine family. These two families operate together in our daily life.
FEINBERG: Judaism believes in immortality but its map of heaven is very vague. We don’t have a blueprint of the celestial abode. HOWSE: Who has?
FEINBERG: We never pay too much attention to the geography of
heaven, although we firmly believe in a future existence. Nevertheless, my own philosophy — and I think it’s in keeping with the core ethic of Judaism — is one world at a time. I’m willing to leave my destiny beyond the grave to God because I'm sure he wouldn’t deprive me, or a Buddhist or an unbeliever, of the peace of the beyond because I don’t belong to a certain church.
STONE: We would say that both worlds exist concurrently. There is a good deal of attention being paid now to the writings of Teilhard de Chardin and his book The Phenomenon Of Man. This book indicates how these two worlds run together and interpenetrate each other. We arc moving toward a more intense spiritual life
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“The church is too much mired in fourth-century imagery, Mediterranean similes of thought”
and what's developing today is an evolution of our spiritual nature. HOWSE: I think myself that this book, The Phenomenon Of Man, is perhaps the most important theological contribution to our time. I also thoroughly agree with the remark Father Stone just made. In the New' Testament, eternal life didn’t mean the continuation of life from death on, but the quality of life now. SPEARS: I'd like to ask each of you what is the chief complaint you hear against your owm church? HOWSE: My own chief complaint
would be that the church is too much mired in fourth - century imagery, Mediterranean similes of thought and categories of expression, which after all are just instruments to convey thought. When they are no longer useful to convey those thoughts, they should be discarded. I suspect, for example, that the concept of the Trinity is doing more to damage Christianity today than to help it, because many modern people are driven to say that if Christianity means the acceptance of such incomprehensible propositions, they must he counted out. William Temple, the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury in a long time, said once, ‘'I do not believe in any creed hut I use the creed to express my beliefs.” Now, with his philosophic training, he could do this, but your layman who sits in the pew, he can’t. And I’m inclined to think that whenever you ask a congregation of ordinary people with modern education to recite the Apostle's Creed, you’re asking for an exercise in intellectual dishonesty. That’s the reason I don’t do it.
FEINBERG: In my opinion the synagogue suffers most from over-institutionalization. The synagogue — and perhaps the church as well, if I'm not mistaken — has shrunk in passion and grown in complexity of structure. STONE: I would say that we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Doctrines carved out in the early centuries simply need a terminology that is relevant today. The doctrine of the Trinity, God's inner life, is at the heart of Christianity. It describes the family of Cod. But we must describe it in our own language.
SPEARS: There is also the complaint that the church has become an institution of the service-club type. FEINBERG: I have begun to suspect that the heart of the matter is the paradox of the professional clergy itself. This may not apply to Catholicism, but certainly in most Protestant denominations and in Judaism the pastor or rabbi is being paid for trying to persuade, cajole, pressure and push people into doing what they don't want to do. In other words, he is hired to he a spiritual leader who will afflict the comfortable — although he comforts the afflicted as well. Here lies the root dilemma of a professional clergy.
STONE: It’s very easy to adopt a professional service attitude. A sense of dedication or sacrifice is forgotten. Pope John put great emphasis on pastoral work. It must be a dedicated service to the needs of mankind. There are a great many lonely people in the world. HOWSE: Almost everybody. STONE: They need to know why God gave them life. This is what the pastor today must do — bring the companionship of God and the companionship of man together. FEINBERG : It seems to me that human loneliness is the prime concern of religion today. Man is alienated from the universe because it's not as clear and simple to him as it was in the Middle Ages. Then there was a three-level cosmos — heaven, earth, then hell at the bottom. But since the time of Copernicus man has begun to realize that even this earth on which he moves and has his being is only a speck of fluff in the vastness of space. Then Darwin tells him he's closely linked up with the animals — simply a product of the ape. monkey, amoeba. Then Freud tells him that his mind is really not a mind at all. that he’s really governed by a subconscious that he can't see. understand or control. Then Einstein opens the way to atomic energy, making man feel that he is a helpless midge on a vast oceanic tide of power. Even the cosmonauts, who supposedly represent human ingenuity and courage at its best, don't give him any real security because he's begun to w'orry about military spy satellites. And now we have automation, which deprives a man of personal joy in his work and may even deprive him of work. So the self-respect of the individual, the feeling of pride in his own w'orth, is steadily being eroded. STONE: Religion is the relationship between God, man and nature, and as the rabbi has pointed out, too many people have lost this vision. FEINBERG: Especially in the big cities. They arc lost, anonymous. They don't know' their next-door neighbors. HOWSE: “We mortal millions live
SPEARS: Does this modern man. this afflicted, lonely, bewildered man. miss the support of authority that the church used to give him? STONE: Yes, if you look at authority in this sense, not as somebody giving commands but as auctor or source. He misses a source of information. He really misses the Fatherhood of God. Something has gone out of his life to w'hich he could refer for solid information and support. SPEARS: I am thinking more of absolute standards from which we seem to be moving away. Christ spoke as one having authority. The Old Testament prophets spoke with authority. Is it possible that there is a sense in modern man that this authoritative voice is less authoritative than it used to be? HOWSE: Authority is both good and bad. You've got to distinguish, as Father Stone did. It’s more than a refuge, although man always needs his refuge. We are so alone. But W'hile there is, and always will be, a place for authority — the kind of authority with which Jesus spoke, an authority that came from an ultimate conviction about the nature of the
universe — we can easily slide over into the kind of authority that means submissiveness to an institution. FEINBERG: Reform Judaism has
moved away from the concept of authority.
HOWSE: From external authority, you mean, but surely not from authority in the sense that we have an ultimate conviction about the nature of the w orld?
STONE: The Fatherhood of God. 1 think. Rabbi.
FEINBERG: The Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. It's a cliché, but fundamental. Modern man rebels against outside authority. Yet his freedom is something he can't use effectively because he doesn't have enough information, intelligence, maturity. This so-called freedom — a very costly boon — contributes to the loneliness of man. If he becomes a rebel and decides to be an individualist. what happens? He seeks a Key to the Kingdom from the politician
who will give him a glib answer. That leads to another of the great dilemmas of our time. SPEARS: Arc we facing different moral issues from those of a generation ago. and if so what is the church's response?
HOWSE : The basic issues are the
same. What we have is a different perception as to what they mean. 1 recall what Leckie points out in his History Of European Morals. He traces, for example, kindness and
cruelty back to where it was kindness to kill your aged parents; then you come to where kindness means to care for them tenderly. At one time slavery was kindness — it was better than killing your prisoners. Later slavery became synonymous with cruelty. But Leckie says that, running all through, there was still the fundamental distinction between kindness and cruelty, and kindness was better than cruelty. What you had was a developing delicacy of perception as
to what kindness meant and what cruelty meant, what honesty meant and what integrity meant. Ultimately we have the same problems, as we have the same sorrows and the same joys, that people had in primitive times. But they are set in different categories now, much more complicated. It is more difficult to find how honesty applies — for example, how to find a man to represent you. how to know that you are voting for the right political party. Ultimately we
have the same problem — to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. STONE: Our problem today is the lack of clear definition of our target. A multiplicity of targets is presented by modern communications: radio.
TV, the press and movies. For instance. the popular picture of marriage is often entirely unrelated to reality. Young people who attend marriage-preparation courses freely admit they previously had very unreal
attitudes to married life. And so today we have to be clear and specific about what is meant by loving God and loving our neighbor. FEINBERG: Does the human being
still think he can control his destiny and will? Children blame their misdemeanors on their parents . . . HOWSE: And the parents on their
FEINBERG: They look to the state for help in time of economic trouble. I think the welfare state is essential, but it certainly can lead to a measure of irresponsibility.
HOWSE: I recall a social worker
telling about a man with an extremely bad criminal history, and he ended up, “Someone, somehow, failed this man.” No suggestion of the man himself failing. In this way we take responsibility off the individual and as Rabbi Feinberg said, everyone feels that he is sick or is suffering. Fie doesn't say, “Woe is me because I failed my own responsibility.” STONE: This is not Judaism, and it is not Christianity.
FEINBERG: It is difficult to retain any basic or enduring faith in human nature when one witnesses so much cynicism and so much violence. However, I've been increasingly interested in one thing that seems paradoxical. The trend of Christian theology now is toward man’s spiritual helplessness. Within the framework of history, as Barth says, we cannot achieve anything ourselves: we have to depend on divine grace. I understand that Christian theologians have come to this emphasis on original sin as a reaction to the nadir of depravity to which the Nazis descended. Yet the Jews who have suffered the most from the inhumanity of man, certainly in this particular instance, still retain a seminal confidence and trust in the possibilities of human nature. STONE: The emphasis among theologians today is on the goodness of the world; it was made by God. But we can get the emphasis wrong. You see it in the stress on sex, for instance, and its place in our lives. Christians have neglected the joy of the Resurrection, the conquest of death. This has to be re-established. We live in the age of Pentecost, the fulfillment of the prophets. There is a victory to be constantly celebrated here. HOWSE: Rabbi Feinberg has laid his finger on an interesting point — the trend in Christian theology, a trend that I think is coming to an end, to believe that this world is lost, that God is going to fulfill himself beyond history, whatever that means. This was, as the rabbi says, a flight from the world that came with the shocking revelation of what the world was like leading up to and through World War II.
SPEARS: Well, what is happening in the world? Is it a better world or a worse one?
FEINBERG: Considering that the practical expression of the human conscience is only perhaps six thousand to ten thousand years old, we haven’t done too badly in such a short time. HOWSE: The only thing that’s new in our world is the good. There is nothing evil you can point out — for example genocide — that isn’t old. But think of the Marshall Plan, the
Peace Corps; the only thing in our world that is distinctive is the good. Everything that is bad has been known to every generation before us. We are shocked only because it reappeared in our generation. SPEARS: Father Stone, what do you hope for your church in the next ten years?
STONE: We look for unity, leadership toward the unity of mankind while retaining diversity and freedom. At the same time we must retain our individuality, and personality. As a family on earth we must reflect the life of God where perfect unity exists amidst this tremendous diversity. FEINBERG: The Catholic Church apparently is on the way to gradual acceptance of birth control, in response, 1 believe, to social pressures. After all, the population explosion may literally plant a “Standing Room Only” sign on the earth, by the end of the twentieth century. Is it possible that the church will modify its absolute ban on divorce — also in response to the practical, realistic needs of society? Frankly, 1 find myself appalled by the cruelty and callousness of Canada’s divorce law's, which make no distinction between a couple w'hose religion bans divorce and one whose religion permits it as the lesser of two evils. If a man, or a woman, deems divorce to be a contravention of God’s will, let him shun the divorce couit: that is his duty. But w'hen a church opinion becomes the law' of the land, applicable to everyone, 1 suggest, with all due respect, that this impairs freedom of conscience, in an intimate, personal area where the individual should be able to exercise some prerogative. STONE: Well, we maintain that when a couple are married an inner relationship is permanently established. We cannot have this inner relationship on a permanent basis and at the same time not have it. We reject divorce because of the existence of this inner bond which we maintain has been revealed by Christ. HOWSE: It is my profound conviction that our present divorce laws are a scandal to civilized people. They exaggerate out of all proportion the importance of the flesh, the physical act. You can have a divorce if you have one instance of adultery. Marriage may be destroyed by worse things than a single act of adultery. STONE: The problem is broken homes. We aren't solving the problem by encouraging more of them. We have to go back to the place where the foundation of marriage is laid, namely a sincere thorough preparation. FEINBERG: One thing 1 object to is that members of parliament, w'hen reacting to proposals for change in divorce laws, appear to be more concerned with what their religion tells them than with the social health of the larger community. HOWSE: Protestants have a profound and genuine conviction that the stringent birth-control laws on our statute books are themselves immoral. Roman Catholics disagree — or have, officially, up to the present. Obviously, what we should have is the possibility for each to practise w'hat his church or his conscience dictates. STONE: The state should make it possible by its laws for a man to
observe his conscience. The state must protect what the man of prudence and good judgment would call the good of all.
HOWSE: If we propose the laws be changed, will we get Catholic support? STONE: 1 think so. A law that is no longer honored shouldn't be on the books. A great deal would depend on what changes w'ere proposed. HOWSE: If a few leading Catholic priests and bishops would say this, it would settle the problem. STONE: I still think there is too much thought given to a change of the divorce law's and too little to an adequate preparation for marriage. SPEARS: Before we wind up. 1 would like to know' w'hat you hope for your church in the next ten years, Dr. Howse?
HOW'SE: Well, I would hope that it would be prepared to make some really radical moves toward an interpretation of religion that speaks in the language of the twentieth century, without feeling that all the ancient imagery is itself sacred. 1 think this is idolatry. The idolatry of our time is different from the idolatry of the Old Testament. The idolatry of the Old Testament w'as making a wooden image and putting it in place of God. The idolatry of our time is taking our credal formulas and theological images and making them sacred, and they're not sacred at all. They are instruments and have no value apart from their instrumental value. There are many other things we have to study. Today we are in a state of flux. This is good. At least we don't have to stir up people any more; they are stirred up now — you can see w'hat happened w'ith our New Curriculum. It was thirty years behind time. It is still too conservative. It still deals out the old cliches; and yet it is regarded as radical. FEINBERG: This kind of controversy is a sign of vigor, w'hen people are concerned to the point of argument. HOW'SE: But people are arguing over issues which are not of this age. This, 1 think, is a criticism of our ministers. They have been more concerned for the peace of the church than the welfare of the church. They've overdone this business of "Don't preach your doubts and don't disturb people." And they've lived in one mental world and the congregation in another. A gap of a generation is in between. I hope w'e can close the gap. SPEARS: Rabbi Feinberg, what is your ambition?
FEINBERG: More intellectual honesty and moral courage in the synagogue. The intellectual honesty to abolish the pretense that the entire Torah — all the traditional and normative customs and rites of Judaism — was divinely revealed and ordained on Mount Sinai at some catastrophic moment. Theoretically, this is the essence of orthodox Judaism, although I strongly doubt that many orthodox Jews really believe it. And moral courage, in relation to the burning and crucial social issues of our age — world peace, the struggle for nuclear disarmament, equal economic opportunity, the continuing fight against racism in all its forms. This is theoretically the prophetic ideal of Judaism — and we should try to fulfill it, not only by words but by deeds. ★