Why Not More Progress in Religion?

Dale DeWitt

Berry Street lecture, 1966


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Hollywood, California

May 16, 1966


It is almost a cliché to state that there is spectacular progress today in a great number of fields of human activity. One need only mention progress in secular pursuits such as medicine, physics, means of travel, communication, engineering, food production, techniques of learning, —and the list could be enlarged considerably. All this makes for an exciting, challenging, sometimes an almost overwhelming context for living in this age. Frequently one day's New York Times will carry news of several discoveries made in secular fields, where intense work of years yields results. Much of this has made new demands upon personnel which we have not anticipated. Probably never again will mankind reach a period when relatively few changes will be a condition of life. We shall have to live expectantly. I have often recalled with amusement a statement I read somewhere that in 1915 a prominent professor of physics at Yale made a statement to his students that practically all the knowledge in his field had been brought together, and that nothing further of importance would be discovered. Whereupon within a comparatively short time new and profoundly important discoveries in this field were made, and this accelerates.


When he was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis L. Strauss stated: "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speed, and will experience a life span far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast of an age of peace.”


I should not be surprised if this statement will in relatively few years seem modest. We read on April 14, 1966 that Pan American World Airways is buying 25 new 490-seat jets which will fly 10 percent faster and a mile higher than most of today's jets.


An impressive catalogue of progress in many fields could be made. My purpose is only to make the point, not to belabor it. And I am aware, as you, that there are some secular fields that are not making great progress, but I am concerned here with religion. Why should not religion progress also? As I ask this question, I am aware that it implies that religion does not progress. I do not mean to imply this, but rather that it progresses very slowly, and reluctantly. I should consider that the espousal of monotheism was progress; that most of the teachings of Jesus, in so far as they can be determined, were progress; that the establishment of the Christian church was progress; that the Reformation was progress though it was for the most part frozen into forms and creeds; that many events and trends such as modernism on the Protestant scene were progress. But it depends upon your point of view. These events have developed against heavy odds and with reluctance. And there is still a reliance on the Bible and the central figure of Jesus as divine as a basis of Christianity.


It is in a comparative sense that I believe religion is slow to change. There has been much excitement over Roman Catholic ecumenism but objective observers indicate that there was more excitement than achievement. The achievements were magnified by the fact that they would not have been predicted a few years ago. Ecumenism in Protestantism presents a different problem, highlighted by mergers and talk of further mergers. If this continues and follows previous patterns, there will be a strengthening of conservatism of theology and of practices. There is almost a natural law that mergers result in more conservatism. This can be documented. It is most often a defensive move rather than progress.


In raising the question implying at least relative slowness of religion to change, I have in mind not only the prevalence of orthodoxy but the rather desperate intellectual efforts of gifted theologians to maintain the heart of orthodoxy by giving up fringe beliefs but not the structure and major content of orthodoxy. And I also have in mind what is generally known as liberal religion — ourselves, for instance.


One difficulty is that religionists are inclined to seek a set of beliefs or central core of beliefs under which they can operate as final and permanent. But we live in a dynamic world, not in a settled world and religion.


I should like to shift gears for a moment. We use the word 'religion' as if everyone knew what we meant. In a very general sense everyone probably does — meaning churches, what goes on there, ministers, priests, some commitments, and ethics of a sort. However, this is a little too easy and quite inadequate. As we read the attempts to define religion we see how complicated this effort becomes. After careful study the late James H. Leuba of Bryn Mawr listed 48 varying, serious definitions of religion. Others over the ages have worked at this, and the problem becomes so difficult that Professor C. C. J. Webb finally said, "I do not believe that religion can be defined.” William James ventured so far as to make characterizing comments such as one I personally like very much. "There must be something solemn, serious and tender about any attitude which we denominate religion.”


I have tried, not too well I am afraid, to answer questions by lay people as to what religion is, a question that comes fairly often to ministers, and I am usually somewhat unhappy about my answers. But I think I owe it to those who listen here to my efforts to indicate basically the kind of understanding of religion from which I speak: naturally, a liberal religion; one in which words and communication play a large part; one in which worship plays a part, through reverence, reverence not for man alone but also for the context which brought him forth; one in which moral choices and creative activity play a part; and one in which self-help and fellowship with others lead one to life enrichment and fulfillment of potentiality. In my own religious life I respect the sincere believers of things I cannot believe, such as supernatural concepts chiefly. I would, however, be open-minded to the supernatural if presented under the most valid methods of knowledge which we can muster, this being for me now the scientific disciplines. Humanism, as an emerging religious view is nearest, or can be the nearest to a label which I know. In this, as a generality, I am reminded of a statement in a current novel, Funeral in Berlin: "I am not interested in winning arguments but in getting results.”


 Coming back to the main theme, I should like to state in positive terms what, in the title, is negative.


I should like to propose certain remedies to the lag of religion which are essential to progress and which, under sympathetic leadership, might bring us the respect of other fields of activity in the modern world.


First, it would seem to me that a religious movement, to progress spiritually and intellectually, must be both free and democratic. This may seem an ordinary thing to say, but both historically and currently these qualities for religion have not been reckoned with nor have they been really understood. It can be said, of historical events as well as of events on the contemporary scene, that freedom is not congenial to established religion. Bishop Pike and the Roman Catholic restlessness and the death-of-God theologians are not disregarded as I say this. For the positions taken are contrary to those of their ecclesiastical bodies. Regardless of their breaking out of the boundaries of their enclosures, it would be at great cost, and would not cause any very considerable broadening of basic positions. At best, what would be achieved would be a measure of liberalizing freedom rather than creative freedom. Not until liberalizing freedom occurs can creativeness under freedom flourish.


Democracy also, in its basic operation, is uncongenial to religious establishments. Ecclesiastical leadership tends to seek power and not share it with representative leadership. Democracy is related to freedom because it can be the creative aspect of freedom. There is much misunderstanding of democracy and its practice is faulty. Not until liberalizing freedom becomes creative freedom will religion progress as it should. Liberal religion, such as we know, has a favored position in which to be creative by making democracy work effectively in the religious field. I wish that democracy might be as precious to persons in religion as it was to Thomas Paine in government. It has been bruised and battered in several fields of human activity, including our own. There is a tendency to sneer at the democratic process and to believe it is an ideal not to be taken very seriously. In its operation it is frequently a cloak for authoritarianism. Why does not our religion take seriously its chance to experiment with this best hope for mankind's earthly salvation, and take determined leadership in its improvement? This would place us in an almost unique position since the Congregationalists merged with the Christian Church. But, alas, I fear that the Unitarian and Universalist organizations took steps backward when they joined. So much so that a theological school head of another denomination characterized the structure of our consolidation as one that would make us one of the most authoritarian Protestant denominations. We can play with eroded democracy only at the cost of unpleasant personnel problems and ultimate soul-damaging types of controversy. This has been illustrated in local churches.


It is very easy on the American scene for churches to claim efficiency in the name of authority and to talk of practicality as if democracy's friends were idealistic, using "idealistic” as if it were a bad word. These are the hard-boiled guys in the business world. Among us I don't know what they should be called. You are aware of those who scorn democracy. They are usually power-hungry and often develop mean spirits and revengeful traits. All this may accomplish some things in the business world, but it does not belong in religion, especially in our movement which on occasion has gained a position from which democracy could be illustrated and overtly given the spiritually significant place it should hold.


A second feature of a religion that would bring progress comparable to that of some of the secular areas of life would be the extensive employment of research. We do not know ourselves nearly as well as we should. We do not know our potential; we do not know if we are really helping people understand and face this increasingly hazardous and complex world; we do not know our resources; we do not know the relation of temperament to the quality of spiritual life — motivations in religious life are largely unknown. These and other aspects, of human living form a rich field for study by methods of research.


In the last world war a research study of adult reactions to the bombings of London were made and it came up with a clear finding that people who had in childhood a good affective relationship with their mothers showed more steadiness and courage than others. At a British university, because of a manpower shortage, tutorial method had to be rearranged so that a small group was involved rather than one student. Much to the astonishment of many educators it was found that those in the group tutorial plan learned more rapidly than under individual tutoring. I mention these instances as research values typical of those which can be developed in areas of feeling and learning.


We shall have to face some unpleasant discoveries as well as rewarding knowledge if we are seriously to relate our movement to an extensive research program. A longer effort and a larger staff would have given us a better study of our theological schools, and one in which greater confidence would have been placed. If we were to establish a department of research at denominational headquarters, its results would have a salutary effect upon the work of the other departments. Dr. Sophia Fahs and Dr. Ernest Kuebler tried valiantly to find resources for a research project to learn whether our church school methods and materials were valid. Such a project would have been of extraordinary worth for leaders and for our church school children. Dr. Thaddeus Clark has on several occasions pointed out the appropriateness of research to our denomination. Those of you who recall the work of the Commission of Appraisal in 1936 will recall the thoroughgoing research that was conducted and the valuable material in it. There are almost no copies of this study available. I had five copies in my office in New York. And when this was learned I had numerous requests for them and gave some away.


Research is a tool which can, and does — when used — reward any progressive service organization. I anticipate the question, "Where will the money come from?” This question always bothers me. I am sure we have enough wealth among our members who could find this an exciting use for their nest eggs. Possibly money now being spent could better be used for research.


I have not thoroughly studied the field of research in religion, but in looking around a bit I have the impression that there has not been much research about the nature of religion and its experience since the time of William James, Professor Edwin Starbuck and Edward Scribner Ames, each of whom studied both past religion and that of their time. In the twenties Hartshorn and May did a study on the use of the Bible with children in Sunday schools, with a negative result embarrassing to churches.


Research is a good way to bring about swifter and more constructive change in religion. It would ally religion more closely with the secular world and gain its respect. There has always been a tendency of religion to separate itself from secular fields as if there were something poisonous there. Research, a field developed largely outside religion, can be valuably employed in religion's behalf. Some fields which could relate constructively to religion in research are psychology, education, social work, medicine and philosophy, to name a few. They could work jointly or feed each other knowledge separately reached. Thus, I plead for a common exchange and interrelationship which could serve man better.


One of the reasons I have chosen freedom, democracy, and research for emphasis is that it seems to me that religion can progress more rapidly and effectively if it deals with knowledge rather than belief. It is what we do about what we know, rather than about what we believe, that will get results as opposed to winning arguments. It is more important that we advance with knowledge than try to bolster belief with erudition and unusual words.


So long as religion is primarily based on belief it will not progress. If belief were effective, most of our problems would have been solved. Belief is a word used about something which men assume cannot be given the quality of knowledge or experience. You do not say you believe in the English language. You know the language and speak it. You do not say you believe in the existence of automobiles. You buy them and ride in them. You do not say you believe in the existence of water. You drink it. Belief is often largely speculation or wishing. It would appear that its very uncertainty and multiple conflicting results lead people to be dogmatically argumentative.


I hope that what I have said is constructive even though I have given place to some critical comments. My primary interest is the great opportunity a liberal religion has in this period. Something is going to replace no longer tenable beliefs. We had better face fully the opening which the present turmoil provides.


E. G. Lee, former editor of the British Unitarian Inquirer, said some time ago: "The real problem of contemporary Christendom, and one that Christianity stares at with a stony gaze, is that for masses of people orthodox Christianity is dead. Many of those who still use it do so out of nostalgia, or half-belief, or through particular personal interpretations. What can take the place of the traditional religious story? That is the spiritual and religious problem of Christendom.”


Lest anyone feel that religion and goodness might become less through freedom, democracy and the extensive use of research, let me suggest that its quality and spiritual power may be far greater. For through this liberation a transcendence of dogma could take place, heightening spiritual experience. Pioneering should still take place in religion, and we are in the best position to undertake it.