Arthur Sermon #1, August 17, 1941
St. Aidan's Chapel
August 17, 1941
by Arthur Wells
If you will pardon a personal reference, I would like to discuss with you this morning a question that has been frequently put to me. My questioners are more often than not persons younger than myself -- or if not younger, then those who seem to hold a typically modern point of view. The questions are variously worded, but a fair statement of their average content would be about as follows:
"You seem to be a reasonably intelligent sort of fellow. You read the newspapers and magazines and some books. You make your living in the commercial world, and appear to be sufficiently normal so as not to be too conspicuous in a crowd. You go about your business, pay your bills, stay out of trouble, and seem to enjoy life. You show certain mild peculiarities, to be sure -- you insist you do not read the comic strips, nor do you enjoy swing music to any great extent. However, you do show some appreciation of many of the finer things of modern life -- for example the movies, ball games, card playing, and delicatessen food. These latter things show that you are not utterly stupid - not hopelessly old-fashioned. And yet you have one outstanding eccentricity. You go to Church. You give religion and its activities a goodly share of your interest, energy, and time. Will you please be so good as to explain this so odd behavior. What in the world do you see in religion and Church and all those things -- especially when there is so much to do and to see that is more important and interesting?"
Have I put the question too harshly? I think not. Sometimes they speak in just such frank terms. Even when they hesitate to be blunt, their attitude shows a puzzlement and a sort of indulgent pity that speaks louder than words. And sometimes I like to fancy that I can detect a little wistfulness -- a sort of envy -- as though they would like to understand and perchance to share a little in an element that they find lacking in their so busy lives. Just possibly Benny Goodman, Superman, and Joe DiMaggio don't quite fill the bill. Just possibly St. Aidan's has something that a night club lacks. Just possibly the pseudo-scientific jargon that they use to explain everything under the sun has no vocabulary to cover certain elements that persist in demanding explanations. Just possibly a bridge game or a tap room or a dance hall or the funnies add up to less than the sum total of human happiness. Just possibly this peculiar chap who persists in his Church activities has some of the answers.
Now frankly, I think he has. If I did not think so, I wouldn't be here. So there is every good reason to make the attempt to answer these half ribald, half wistful questioners. It is a big subject, and one that the lack of time makes harder. A brief address, or series of addresses, will avail for but the barest outline.
Because these modern young people do not talk the same language, the concepts -- the very vocabulary -- of religious discussion are almost meaningless to them. They know the dictionary meaning of the words, of course. But these leave them cold. They have their own ways of expression, and sometimes I think that "never the twain shall meet". However, to the proposition that the Church abandon its formularies and techniques, and attempt to recast the whole set-up, I am unalterably opposed. My reasons I will state later, either in this address or in next Sunday's. Suffice to say, a way must be found to persuade my questioners to come to the adoption of my Church's techniques -- for therein lie materials too precious to be cast aside. But to answer the question -- Why do I go to Church? -- it might be possible to talk the questioner's language temporarily. I would like to try.
Let us then look into their mysterious modern language. Most of them have been to High School -- often enough they are college-trained. Whether or not this constitutes an education is another story. It depends on the point of view. Personally, I am willing to say I do not think so. Be that as it may, their vehicles of expression are compounded of certain easily recognizable elements. First, they are equipped with a small stock of scientific words and phrases. They think and talk, in the field of biology, of the ductless glands, of cell division and multiplication, of stimuli and responses. In the field of psychology they talk of inferiority and other complexes, of conditioned reflexes, of inhibitions, morbid disturbances, and psycho-physical relationships. They have a fair supply -- not too extensive -- of little labels they pin upon this and that, thereby explaining a lot of things. In physics and chemistry they list in their stock some more little labels, like electrons, radio-activity, energy transformations, and the like. Thereby explaining the physical universe. I do not wish to be harsh -- but if I desire to make myself even a little understood, I must take this store of ideas with which they work, and use it to justify my Church going -- or stand convicted of stupid eccentricity.
But time presses. Perhaps the best approach will be an example. Suppose I am the observer of a simple scene. I am looking at a man and a child. They are strangers to me. The man has on a blue suit -- the child is dressed in white. I cannot hear them -- I only see them. The rays of light from them to me enter my eyes, pass through the lenses and focus on the retina. The sight is ordinary -- no interest is excited. I am neutral and in no way affected by seeing them. Then the man strikes the child, hurting it. Same man, same blue suite, same child, same white dress, same rays of light, same lenses and retinas. The image is transmitted to my brain. And what happens? My adrenal glands get a message from my brain, discharge adrenalin into my blood. My heart beats faster, my muscular energy is intensified, I spring forward to interfere with this cruel procedure. In my mind and body are sensations of horror, pity, anger. My whole make up, mental and physical, has been altered and disturbed. Yet the stimulus has not altered. The man, the child, the rays of light, are constant. They have not enlarged, multiplied, or changed in color or shape. What then started all the excitement?
My friends, it was an idea. Something that has no weight, no chemical analysis, no radio activity, no dimensions. In this case, the idea of Cruelty. The Fact that the striking of the child invoked the concept of cruelty is a necessary link in the chain of events that led me to attack the man so as to interfere with his cruel behavior. An idea, I say. Before that idea was born, I was neutral, indifferent. To be sure, I saw the man and the child. But the sight did nothing to me, nor did I do anything to them. Are we not then here dealing with something in an altogether different category, something entirely outside the physical world -- and yet something that set in motion a chain of events that otherwise could no have happened? Furthermore, this chain of events affected me. Maybe I killed the man and went to jail for it. Maybe I got killed by the man. Maybe I persuaded the man never to beat the child again, thus permanently affecting his life and the child's life. This is no far-fetched quibble. Just such little incidents happen every day. Our lives are made up of them.
But let us not drop the subject of the idea of cruelty. It is worth some more attention. Let me ask this. Why did the idea of cruelty inspire me to interfere in just the way I did? Suppose the man, instead of striking the child, had performed some act of kindness to it. Then, when I observed it, it is quite likely that my reaction would have been favorable, approving, pleasant. I might have complimented him or rewarded him with a tip or a hand shake. Why did not the act of cruelty excite my approval or call for my applause? Is this a foolish question? Indeed it is not. Somehow, somewhere, in my background, my inheritance, built into my inmost being, is the tendency to applaud kindness but to resent cruelty. Where did this tendency to differentiate between kindness and cruelty originate? That such a tendency exists in all of us is a matter of common experience. How did it get here? Did we always have it? Do barbarians and savages have it to the same degree that we do? Could we conceivably slip back and lose some of it? Could we conceivably cultivate and nurture it so that we could have more of it? Answer those questions for yourselves.
So far, we have mentioned only two ideas. Cruelty, and its opposite, kindness. All about us, impinging upon us without ceasing, is a tremendous complex of ideas. All are capable of being differentiated as we did with our man and his cruelty or his kindness. Some not so easily perhaps. There are a host of borderline ideas that require the most studious appraisal. But this much is sure -- the success or failure of our lives is almost wholly dependent on how we classify and evaluate our ideas, and what we do about them. Think of only a few of them. Abstract though they be, we know them, react to them, and live and die by and through them. Love and hate, joy and grief, peace and turmoil, patience and rebellion, meekness and pride, magnanimity and spitefulness, forgiveness and revenge, generosity and greet, beauty and ugliness, truth and falsehood, honor and dishonor -- the list is endless.
Throughout the ages, seers, prophets, philosophers and saviours have weighed and measured these ideas that are weightless and unmeasurable except in the field and realm in which they belong. They have declared unto us, and sought to prove to us and demonstrate to us, which are good and useful and elevating, which are bad and harmful. Gradually the human race came to some agreement on many of them, although it was by no means a unanimous agreement. Even today there is a great confusion -- perhaps greater than formerly. But some nineteen hundred years ago a classification and evaluation of ideas was undertaken by a Teacher who was the Founder of our Church. How well He succeeded may be still a matter for debate. At least, it is not a part of the purpose of this address to defend His choices. Sad to relate, there are all too many today who do not see as He did, and who assign to the favorable class ideas that He condemned, and throw into the discard ideas that He valued most highly. Suffice it to say that we Christians agree with His classification and give at least a nominal assent to His selections.
The reason I cannot take the time now to endorse and to explain our endorsement of His recommendations is that I want to stick to my subject -- Why do I go to Church? Bear with me then if I simply say that of course I subscribe to them, otherwise I would go to some other Church -- perhaps a Mohammedan mosque or a Voodoo shrine. That is, if I still thought that I ought to attend somewhere. The question really is -- why go at all -- anywhere?
My friends, the whole question reduces itself to this. Let us gather together our whole collection of ideas that we may have decided to call good. In the Christian Church, that choice has been made for us. Heading the list, and embracing all the others, is the idea of Love. Along with Love, complimenting it and enlarging upon it, are the whole list of virtues we agree upon as being Christian and desirable. Now, where do these ideas come from? What started them all? How can we increase our store of them? How can we renew our supply when it is depleted? How can we strengthen them when they get weakened? Well, it seems to me that we are doomed to defeat, that the impact upon us of the great mass of evil and deadly ideas will surely overwhelm us, unless we can find somehow a store or reservoir upon which we can draw so as to renew our supply. This store or reservoir is something whose very existance is hard to prove. I am willing to admit that here we come upon something that our modern questioners will find a stumbling block. For in the last analysis, to recognize and make use of such a reservoir requires of us an act of Faith.
But is there anything shameful -- anything pitiful -- in an act of Faith? No indeed. Yet it is greatly to be regretted that I must use the word Faith. Because in spite of all my good intentions, that word Faith is one of those words these young moderns have dropped from their vocabulary. Hence it is hard to get them to see the meaning of it. It is in a class with such obsolete words as respect, dignity, reverence, and the like. They are not at all sure they know what they mean, and not at all sure they would like them if they did know. Yet my job was to try to give a sensible reason for my going to Church. So I must try, at least, to speak of Faith in sensible terms.
There are a lot of approaches to the problem. I will confine myself to one only. I mentioned the idea of a reservoir of good, from which perchance we might draw fresh supplies as we need them. Needless to say, such a reservoir is just another name for what we call God. But regardless of what we call it, it might as well not exist if we cannot draw upon it. But how to prove that we can? The answer is not at all unreasonable. Try it and see. That is all there is to it. This is what science calls an empirical approach to the solution of the problem. And be most certainly assured, the empirical method is one that science recognizes and utilizes constantly. And if the revered scientist is permitted to "try it and see" I can't for the life of me see why the poor religionist may not do the same thing.
So approach the reservoir and try it and see. If you go away empty handed, don't come back. But if a sincere and sustained effort results in an enrichment of your life, a replenishment of your depleted stores of that which is good, you experiment is a success -- the process works. There is of course a technique to be learned - a set of tools that we must get used to using. As we grow more adept, we get better results. That is only reasonable. Every game has to be played according to the rules.
Next Sunday I would like to develop this matter of the techniques -- the tools we use to help us. For the present, I leave the subject with this brief summary. We are motivated by ideas, both good and bad. A successful life is one which is governed by a maxium of good and a minimum of bad. There is a reservoir of good which is available for mankind to draw upon. We can prove that this is so by tapping it and discovering whether or not it yields the desired supply of good. Our experience shows that it will do so.
Why do I go to Church? To tap the reservoir.
Go To Next Letter Return to Uncle Arthur Sub-table of Contents