Arthur Sermon #2, August 24, 1941
St. Aidan's Chapel
August 24, 1941
by Arthur Wells
Last Sunday we discussed what sort of answer we Church goers can give when one of our skeptical young moderns puts to us the blunt question "Why do you go to Church?" I will repeat the summary with which I concluded last week's address. "We are motivated by ideas, both good and bad. A successful life is one which is governed by a maximum 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 we go to Church? To tap the reservoir."
This morning I would like to pay a little attention to the methods that have been developed to accomplish this tapping operation. Let us concern ourselves then with the tools we employ -- the techniques by which we use these tools.
But before delving into this very important subject, I think we would be wise to lay just a little more ground work. I should like to demonstrate that in selecting these tools we use exactly the same method as when we set out to prove the existence of the reservoir in the first place. I said that we had best use what the scientists call the empirical approach. This means that by what amounts to an act of Faith, we must assume that such a reservoir exists; then proceed to try to draw from it the good with which our assumption has endowed it. I said then that if the experiment works and the good is obtained, we have a satisfactory proof that such a source of good really exists. If you do not like this procedure, then let me ask you this: Where else can the good have originated? By definition, we religionists say that God is the Source of all good. If you wish to ascribe the good to some other source, you are merely calling the same God by a different name, and your argument becomes childish hair splitting.
Let us examine a little further this matter of the empirical or experimental approach. Let us ask this question -- how do we know anything? In the last analysis, we have but two sources. Our own experiences teach us at first hand. And the experiences of others teach us at second hand. And if we do not believe these others when they tell us about their experiences, then we can learn nothing beyond our own first hand observations. Whenever we believe what these others tell us, we perform an act of faith -- the very thing these modern critics view with such scorn. Yet they themselves do the same thing every day -- nay, every minute of their lives.
This is important enough to justify giving an example: I strike this wood with my knuckles. I am prudent enough not to strike it so hard as to hurt myself. Why? Well, at various times in my life I have come in contact with wooden objects with sufficient violence to bruise my flesh and cause myself pain. In other words, my own personal experience has taught me approximately how hard I may strike a wooden plank without injury to my knuckles. This is an important thing for me to know. In my daily life, I encounter a lot of wooden objects, and if I were unaware of their ability to cause bruises, I would soon find myself pretty well battered.
But let us consider some other source of danger. I have never eaten bichloride of mercury. So far as my own personal experience goes, I do not know that it is harmful. But from a lot of people whose reliability I respect, I learn that it is a deadly poison. Hence common sense tells me I had better not swallow any. But do not be under any misapprehension -- I avoid bichloride of mercury through an act of Faith -- faith in the accuracy of the statements of other men, who have learned of the dangers of this chemical, and have told me about it.
You see what all this is leading to? If our critics and questioners show a sort of tolerant contempt for our foolish beliefs in religious matters, let them scrutinize the thousands and tens of thousands of acts of Faith they perform every day of their lives. And they had better not be too cock-sure of the accuracy of much of their own information. There is a better than even chance that it could easily be proved to be erroneous. I think that this fairly well establishes the propriety, the reasonableness, of availing ourselves of the experiences of others. We may as well admit that this is especially true in religion. This great subject seems to have an appeal to all sorts of people, but the adepts, those especially endowed with faculties of insight and responsiveness, seem to be the exceptions among mankind. We need not be surprised at this. It is true in other human activities. There are fewer musicians than listeners. There are fewer mathematicians than those who have "no head for figures". There are fewer athletes than spectators. There are fewer financiers than poor people. That need not prevent us ordinary folk from enjoying the music, the football games, the benefits of engineering, or the fruits of commerce.
As I said, in religion especially it is necessary to recognize that we are indeed the heirs of all the ages. True, it requires those Acts of Faith about which I have had so much to say. The answer to that objection is simply the modern phrase: "What of it?"
So we come to Church. We perform certain acts. We sing, we pray, we read passages out of certain books, we sit and listen to addresses or sermons. In general, I have made my attempt, howbeit feeble and imperfect, to justify the reasonableness of our coming here in the first place. After we are here, we ought to know what we are doing. What are the tools we work with? In our Anglican-American branch of the Church, they consist of several books. There is in the first place, the Book of Common Prayer. The greater part of its contents is of extreme antiquity. The English language used is on the whole the very cream of our literature. Those portions that are translated for ancient tongues are selected from among the most lofty utterances of the great men of old. The book is not perfect, but provision is made for its revision when changing times indicate that such revision is desirable. This was done in America in 1790, 1892, and 1928. There are those who are hoping for further revision and enrichment. Doubtless some future General Convention will undertake this when the need is urgent.
Not second to the Prayer Book, but in importance outranking it, is the Bible. This great collection of writings is in its entirety of vast age. It is translated by authorized scholars for our edification. Its original authors were Hebrews -- a people utterly unique in all the history of the human race in its ability to produce men of the most extraordinary religious insight and mystic adeptness. Our translations share with the Prayer Book the glories of the Elizabethan English language -- that fullest flowering of our mother tongue.
There is an authorized Lectionary, in which the Church sets forth selections from the Bible appropriate to be read on the various days of the year. This is far from perfect, perhaps, but it is subject to periodical revision and future editions of it can be and doubtless will be improved.
There is the official Hymnal, a collection of sacred poetry set to suitable tunes. This Book also is revised from time to time -- such a revision being now in progress. The new Hymnal, when adopted, promises to be vastly improved and enriched.
There is available also a great literature of anthems, with the widest latitude of choice permitted. These are usually sung at the offertory, although they are used on many other suitable occasions.
The foregoing is the enumeration, without comment on their contents, of the books we use. There are other matters we must mention. The style of the architecture of the buildings is of great importance. The furniture -- pews, pulpit, lecturn, choir stalls, font, altar, ornaments, vestments, all contribute to create atmosphere and to enrich our services. Like all else that we see and hear and say and do, they are of a certain recognized conventional style, permitting of wide variation while still conforming to certain standards of pattern and design.
These then are our tools. But just as the mere possession of a box of carpenter's tools does not qualify any man to be a skilled carpenter, so also these religious tools do not endow their users with expertness in the practice of religion. We must cultivate knowledge and skill in using them -- and the measure of our success in this endeavor is the measure of the benefits we will obtain. So there still remains the question of technique -- a study that one life-time is all too brief to complete. But even a little skill rewards us with such benefits that we are more than justified in our pursuit of the ideal.
In order to satisfy fundamental religious needs, attention must be given to three main departments or elements. They are inter-related. People differ in their responses to these three elements -- they have for each of us varying degrees of appeal. We can classify them as intellectual, emotional, and moral.
There must be for most of us a mental or intellectual background that satisfies -- or at least does not offend -- our common sense. To many this is a great stumbling block. Otherwise well disposed to religion, people are repelled when asked to believe the stories of the miracles, and the hundreds of other alleged facts that our Church services present every Sunday. There is no use - in fact there is no desire on the part of the Church, to gloss over or to minimize such accounts as those of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a thousand other like statements. That they are hard for moderns to believe is all too true. To give even a fraction of our reasons for believing them would require not one but thousands of addresses such as this. I am fully conscious that I weaken the force of these remarks by not dwelling longer on this vitally important topic, but the subject is too vast. I must content myself by pointing out that these proof -- indeed the very facts in question -- are the main reason for those portions of the services devoted to instruction. These comprise the scriptural readings and above all the sermons. A life-time of sermon hearing will give the average Church goer at least a little of the material he needs to handle these difficulties. I think I may say that my own experience has taught me that they are largely a matter of interpretation. We must try to realize that we are here working in the field and category of ideas. We learn in time to grasp the idea, and hold fast to that even when the credibility of the story is still a major handicap. Attempts to present mathematical proofs are doomed to failure. But I have already said enough about acts of Faith, to persuade myself (and perhaps my hearers) that the element of Faith may prove the solution of our problem. And precious few of the facts in other departments of human life are capable of mathematical proof. Never forget that. A lot of people fail to realize it, thereby making bigger fools of themselves than we are likely to do in Church.
The second of the departments into which we can classify our techniques, I have labelled the emotional. This label is not altogether satisfactory. It includes the esthetic -- the response we make when we observe beauty. Beauty comes to us in sentiment, and also in form, in color, in sound. Some Churches utilize even the sense of smell, when they burn incense. The touching and tender beauty of the Christmas story carries us a message that goes far beyond the mere relation of an historical fact. It would move us deeply even if it were not true. If it were pure fiction, it would not lose its appeal. Recognizing this, we might properly be charged with beclouding the issue by the use of emotional hum-bug. I fear this accusation may sometimes by a just one -- but thousands of years of experience has taught the Church a beautiful and legitimate skill in combining the emotional element with the intellectual so as to avoid this danger. The Church is alert to preserve this delicate balance. Cheap sentimentality in our hymns, our music, our sermons, is constantly being warred upon. We are not free from it. But we learn as we go on. And it is also a truth that a host of individuals are so constituted as to be appealed to by methods which we aristocratic Episcopalians regard as being in wretched bad taste. Perhaps they are. But that is no reason why we should advocate the abolition of the Salvation Army, for example. Their approach reaches people for whom St. Aidan's is quite empty handed.
The third of these elements which classify the techniques of religion is the moral or the ethical. Most religions set up moral codes for their devotees -- but Christianity is outstanding in its emphasis on this feature. Jesus taught us a new concept of the nature of God and of His relationship to us and ours to Him. He also showed us a way of life, and placed almost equal emphasis upon it. He laid down broad general principles. His followers, even down to the present day, have set up codes or rules of conduct by which His way of life can be lived. The necessity of following these codes is the more urgent when we realize that departure from them is the surest barrier when we try to approach God in the practice of our religion. I keep speaking of "tapping the reservoir". We are handicapped in our attempt to do this if we stray too far from His way of life in our daily conduct. What the Church calls sin is the greatest obstacle a successful approach. Yet herein is a grave and persistent difficulty. Lacking detailed instructions, religious leaders throughout the ages with the best of good will, have attempted to codify these moral and ethical laws with a view to guiding the people so that their approach to God may be unhampered by sin and guilt. The results have been dismaying in their confusions and contradictions. Think of the vast amount of energy and time that the Churches have expended on such questions as Sabbath observance, the use of tobacco and alcohol, the practices of card playing, dancing, and theatre going. Many Protestant denominations are busy with these matters at the present time. The Pope of Rome this very year has thought is necessary to give attention to such a question as the modesty of women's dress styles. Our own Church has many men of prominence who feel called upon to take vigorous positions either for or against changes in the laws relating to marriage and divorce. These moral and ethical codes are in a constant state of flux -- but I think I am justified in saying that our Church is prone to avoid too legalistic and systematic a method. She seems anxious to define sin in terms of the great general fundamental principles laid down by Christ. But be that as it may, all the divisions of Christianity can unite on the proposition that a God whose sacred name is Love cannot be successfully approached by a man whose nature is poisoned by hate. Sin is the opposite of all that God is. And in that category fall the qualities which we recognize as falsehood, ugliness, and hate, and their corollaries of envy, malice, greed, cruelty, selfishness, pride, hyprocrisy -- the whole abominable list.
So the Church exists primarily to present to us that concept of God taught by her Founder, and to lead us to that God by the use of methods whose efficacy has been demonstrated through the many centuries of her experience. To eyes and ears and minds and hearts unaccustomed to these methods, grave difficulties stand in the way of her success. But the rewards she offers are so exceedingly valuable that man, so soon as he can see the goal even dimly, is more than justified in employing the tools she places at his disposal. Her message, in the very nature of things, must largely fall upon deaf ears -- but here and there, in numbers totalling a surprising lot, men and women avail themselves of what she so urgently invites them to share. May the God whose service is the only reason for the Church's existance, guide more and more of His children into the care and ministry of this institution; and may He help her in her holy work of leading them to Him.
Go To Next Letter Return to Uncle Arthur Sub-table of Contents