"The Underlying Significance of the Fundamental Changes in the Religion of Our Times”[1]

Horace Westwood, Mission Preacher for The Unitarian Laymen's League

Berry Street Essay, 1927


Delivered at the Ministerial Conference

May 23, 1927


At the close of one of the sermons of the Boston Preaching Mission, a visiting minister remarked to a mutual friend: "I cannot understand, for the life of me, why they should use a Humanist to conduct a Mission in Boston."

His observation was not intended as a personal criticism. It was simply a query on his part concerning what he regarded as a matter of fact. Therefore, I can assure you that there was on my part not the slightest resentment. But there was wonder, if not amazement; surprise, if not chagrin, and my total reaction left me in a peculiar state of mind: for I felt, so to speak, that the joke was on me.

The topic that evening was: "Will Science Abolish God?". I had devoted the greater part of the sermon demonstrating—at least so I flattered myself—that Science could not abolish God; that those who so interpreted it were either confused in their thinking, or had not carried their thought clear through. I tried to make it obvious that God was the center of my life. But evidently I did not succeed. In my defence of Theism I had laid myself open to the accusation of "that dreadful heresy called Humanism.” Like that most famous and eloquent English preacher, Robert Hall, who gave a three months' course of sermons in defence of the Trinity only to succeed in making many Unitarians and atheists in his congregation, I had defeated my end. The result has been most salutary, for ever since then I have been asking myself all sorts of questions, some of which are as follows: I call myself a Theist, but am I Humanist after all, "flesh veiled but not concealed”? Did my friend, with that penetrative intuition which goes with the swiftness of an arrow's flight to the heart of reality, really discover the true situation? What is a Theist, anyhow? What is a Humanist? Is the issue as clearly defined as it seems to be? Is it a genuine problem in religion, or is it in its essence simply speculatively theological? Is there any truth, in the recently coined aphorism, "Scratch a Humanist and you find a Theist. Scratch a Theist and you find a Humanist?” Is not the fulfillment of Man and his complete realization a journey towards God, and therefore may it not be that the Humanist, who makes this his chief concern, is more in harmony with the will of God than the Theist, over anxious to demonstrate the fact of God?

Personally, I am not in the least worried over the so-called Humanist-Theist controversy. There was a time when I was gravely concerned, and when, like a prophet of old was very jealous for the Lord God of Hosts, I had the feeling that one of the supreme duties of the ministry was to bear witness to the fact of His existence, and to persuade men that in Him we live and move and have our being. I still devote a great deal of my preaching to this persuasive attempt, for the experience of God is very precious to me, and I want my hearers, if possible, to share it. Moreover, I find myself in agreement with Lynn Harold Hough when he indicates in his admirable little book on "Evangelical Humanism”, that while Humanism may carry us to lofty heights, "it reaches the limit of its power…. But it does not reach the limit of its desire. Suddenly it knows that it has the instinct for flight. And in the same poignant and potent and tragically revealing moment it knows that it has no wings. There you have” continues he "the glory and the desperate tragedy of Humanism—the instinct for flight! The absence of wings!” And when I consider 'the ineradicable longing for the universal and the eternal in the heart of man, Martineau's revealing words flash across my mind: "Humanism corrects the error of individualism; yet again renews it, when it shuts up mankind within their reciprocal relations, and cuts them off from divine affinities beyond. Neither ourselves, nor our race, surveyed as an island, can ever be interpreted aright; to understand what we are, or even what we contain, we must venture the embracing seas and integrate our lives with the unmeasured sphere of being. But -despite its limitations, may I venture the opinion, that anxiety on the part of self-confessed Theists lest Humanism destroy religion, is really an evidence of lack of faith in God. For running through Christian Theism at least, is the melodious refrain that what is most truly human is most divine, and ultimately, the logic of its position is that the unfolding and fulfillment of the human spirit is the self-realization of the Sons of God; and therefore man in his highest reaches cannot fail to find God. This is the inevitable haven of the soul if the compass be kept true. The deepest conviction of my own personal life abides here. God in the long run is inescapable for the earnest heart. The timeless and universal within the human soul will lead where the universal and timeless abide.

The purpose of this paper, however, is not a defence of Theism nor a criticism of Humanism, and I hope, in the discussion which follows, this issue will not be raised. I have referred to it simply to clear the way for a presentation of what I feel to be the real issues in religion today. In other words, might it not well be argued that the Humanist discussion is but symptomatic of deeper and more fundamental changes that are taking place in the religious life of our time? Like the Fundamentalist—Modernist controversy, is it not a sign that we are passing through what is equivalent to a revolution in religion, and does it not presage the dawn of a new age in the spiritual life of mankind? Is it not merely a surface indication that man, in his readjustment to his spiritual environment, is evolving, not only new modes of thought, but a new technique of spirituality, and that he is standing upon the threshold of a different approach to the problems of faith and the religious life?

+ + +

In the first place there is almost universal questioning as to the value and validity of religion itself. The field of discussion has changed. It is no longer in the realm of doctrine and ideas that the debate is waged. It has shifted to die areas of life and experience.

A generation ago, for instance, we were discussing the validity of what were regarded as fundamental religious ideas, such as those of God, Freedom and Immortality. We were concerned with the problem of the creeds and the great doctrines of Christendom. The vital religious questions centered round the Nature and Work of Jesus, the Inspiration of the Scriptures, the theory of the Atonement and the doctrine of punishment and reward; and under the influence of the comparative study of religion we were seeking to discover the relative truth of the various religions of mankind. Of course, in many quarters, these questions are still discussed, for they possess perennial interest. But in the larger sense they have become of secondary importance and represent forms of religious expression which do not necessarily go to the heart of religion itself.

Today, the thoughtful mind (to borrow the title of Foster's memorable book) is asking, "What is the function of religion in man's struggle for existence?” Has it been a good or an evil thing in the life of the race? Will it be a permanent factor in the future? Will man outgrow religion as a child outgrows its toys? Is not religion after all an expression of Man's intellectual and spiritual immaturity? In other words, it is not the idea of God, nor this nor that doctrinal conception, which stands at the bar of human judgment, but the fact of religion and the value and validity of religious experience in the evolution of mankind.

It is futile to say that questions like these ought not to be asked, and that they proceed from impious minds. The fact remains that they are being asked by an increasing number of people, and that they are basic to the youth emerging from our educational institutions today.

And they are hard to answer. The honest spiritual leader has no easy task when be attempts to justify the claims of religion and religious institutions upon the allegiance of mankind. He recognizes, with Professor Whitehead, that "The uncritical association of religion with goodness is directly negatived by the plain facts,” and that there have been periods when religion has not only failed to minister to man's highest interests but has been a positive evil and an incubus upon his spirit. There have been times when it has let loose the forces of hatred rather than love, war and strife rather than peace, cruelty and persecution rather than kindness and forebearance; times when it has stood with the forces of injustice and oppression rather than with justice; times when it has been on the side of reaction and darkness, ignorance and superstition, rather than an influence for sweetness and light, and the free emancipation and progress of the soul of mankind. Moreover, such questions are not confined to the intellectuals. They have filtered down into the mentality of the proverbial "man of the street”. They may not be clearly articulated, nevertheless they are there. Not only the church, but religion itself is under suspicion. He may use the offices of religion for baptisms, weddings and funerals. He plays safe in the great crises of human experience. But he has the hunch (so to speak) that religion may not be very important after all.

It would be presumptuous for me to attempt the answering of these questions before a body such as this. I have no need to argue on the other side. You know better than myself the evidence for the permanence of religion as a factor in human life. Your knowledge of man's spiritual history bears witness to the positive contributions religion has made. But I do maintain that to lose sight of the fact that the character of the problems involved has shifted ground; to fail to see that it is functional rather than doctrinal, is to lose sight of the most important change taking place in the religious thinking of our time.

+ + +

In the second place, the day of the hypothetical affirmation as the basis of the religious life, if not passing, is at least being challenged. Not that hypotheses will cease to function; for even as in the realm of science they are essential as tools of exploration, so will they be for man's spiritual life. But they will be taken for what they are, and be used as such, therefore ceasing to be symbols of authoritative faith authentically binding upon the human soul. The inductive method, which is the foundation of science, and which is now rigorously wed in every department of human experience, is at last being applied to the life of the spirit.

This is but another way of saying that man is becoming thorough-going in the application of the scientific method in all that pertains to the religious life. The technique that he has so successfully applied to the realm of external reality will be increasingly applied to the inner life of the soul, and the postulates man has used as the cardinal beliefs of faith. This does not imply that science will supplant religion, for I thoroughly agree with Ayres that science in itself is a false Messiah, powerless to save. But I do mean, that for the coming age in religion, there is no escape from all that the inductive method entails.

It cannot be gainsaid, for instance, that the content of religious belief in the past has to a large extent been assumptional in character. Nor can it be successfully denied that much of the energy of organized religion has been devoted to the winning of allegiance and conformity to the assumptions of faith. I am not arguing that some of these assumptions have not been justified by experience, nor am I contending that they cannot stand the test of reality. But I do maintain that there is a profound psychological change in the attitude of the modern mind thereto. It is unwilling to accept anything on the mere say-so of the religious leader. It adopts the Missourian adage—"show me!”

Hence the basis of the religious age now dawning will be frankly experimental in character. Nothing will be bindingly assumed, and nothing accepted as possessing the validity of a basic principle until sustained by the evidence in the case. Instead of adopting the time-honored custom of assuming certain principles as expressing the content of religious reality, and then seeking to find the facts to sustain them, the method will be reversed. The facts of life and experience will be gathered, and man will ask, "What do they teach? What principles may be inferred therefrom? What general laws?” The creed making process will be supplanted by the endeavor to discover these principles and laws.

To some, this brings nothing short of consternation. They behold, perhaps with justifiable dread, the possible destruction of the temple of faith. They see ancient ideas, which have meant so much, and have been so precious to millions, vanishing beneath the rigorous onslaught of scientific inquiry, and they would if they could, prevent the contact of seemingly irreverent hands. They fear lest there should be nothing left to believe. Perhaps even the Idea of God may perish beneath the intrepid daring of man, and the experiences of the mystic be revealed as nothing more than "escape mechanisms" as the psychologist would say, created by the human soul in its attempt to avoid the stern nature of reality. Even so, the temper of the modern mind must be accepted for what it is. There is no running away from it. What will not stand radical inquiry is not worth believing, and if our mystical experiences are forms of self-deception our moral and spiritual health demands that we know.

For us, however, this brings no dread. We agree with Emerson that, "The religion which is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide,” and we are persuaded that the Atheist is not one who questions or denies, but one who, professing faith in God, is afraid to trust the investigation of. Truth, lest it might be proved that God is not. And can we afford to mistrust the truth-seeking spirit, no matter where it may seem to lead? Dare we say to any man "Thus far shalt thou go, and no further! Tear not aside the veil that hides the inner shrine of Truth, lest you behold nothing but an empty void!”? This would mean intellectual death, and be an expression of a spiritual cowardice unworthy of souls claiming to be Sons of God. Nor ought we to seek to prevent any man from speaking his full mind, even though for a time he may appear to flounder in a sea of negation. The universe is our home, and beyond its borders we cannot stray. The truth, which for the time may seem to burn with fires of damnation, will in the end purify and bless, and the strong soul says, "Though Truth slay me, yet will I trust it”. The holy daring of brave pioneers who battle on the frontiers of Truth, clears new ground for those entrenched in the sacred dug-outs of past achievement. After all, is it not our function while honoring the nobility of the past, to lead the souls of men to accept the challenge of discovery and even though we "hold fast that which is good” can we escape the obligation implied in the query of the modern mind, "what is the validity of the good to which you bid us hold fast?”

Perhaps the fear which many possess of the inductive method applied to the religious life has its roots in the narrowed conception of the field of science, which all too often is confused with the investigation of purely physical reality. But the "factual” embraces many realms which have a reality all their own. Modern psychology, in my humble judgment, is justifying as "factual” what physical science once declared as being "purely illusory”. It is revealing to us "The might of the spirit” and opening to our eyes majestic realms in the "Great Within of the Soul”. Moreover, the changing conceptions of the nature of matter, which now engage the mind of the physicist, raise the question as to whether after all, the great realities may not be in the realm of the Invisible. But I am not arguing that Science justifies Faith. That is not the purpose of this paper. I am simply calling attention to the great and inevitable change in attitude that the inductive method is bringing to the religious life. I can only express a faith which Bergson long ago voiced, namely that the inductive method applied to the inner life of man means the dawn of a greater spiritual age and will establish unchallengeable foundations.

+ + +

A corollary to this change is the recognition that man's spiritual life itself must be brought under the reign of law. This is generally accepted. But the full significance of this has as yet but dimly been perceived. Nevertheless it is inevitable that a profound change must transpire.

Religious truth has somehow been conceived apart from the reign of law. It has been something one could accept, reject, or to which one could remain neutral by an act of will. There was always the element of debatability: the chance for an argument. In the hinterland of the mind there lurked the conviction that it was always more or less incapable of proof. "The essence of the situation” might be in the "maybe”. In the final outcome it was always a matter of opinion.

But in the realm of material science and our physical life we have made the important discovery that there is much that is not  mere matter of opinion. In mechanics, physics, chemistry, personal hygiene, education, etc., there are laws or principles which must be obeyed if one is to obtain the best results, and certain things are impossible save through obedience to these laws. In the absolute sense one cannot fail to be aware that our scientific generalizations may be ultimately relative, but at least in the practical sciences they must be taken for granted and obeyed. Certain chemical combinations always result in a fixed product. Use the laws of leverage in a certain way and you always obtain the same result. Disregard certain principles of sanitation and you perish. An optional attitude here is the supreme lack of wisdom.

Underlying our spiritual life there may be also fixed laws or valid generalizations that are undebatable. And just as our material and physical welfare and progress depend upon discovery of and obedience to physical law, so also may it be with the life of the soul in its relation to spiritual law.

It would be folly to argue that there will be nothing left about which to debate, and that the delectable joy of heated discussion will vanish from the religious life. But gradually we shall evolve a technique of approach which will discover the laws of the Spirit, and with it much of the element of option will disappear. One can imagine situations in which the vaunted right of private judgment might look as foolish as an argument as to the times of the tides or the setting sun. One cannot very well argue that the formula for water is not always H20. One wonders whether or not the basis of world religion may not be found here, and whether under the reign of law the folly of sectarianism might not automatically disappear. The emphasis will have shifted from doctrinal agreement to that of obedience to established law.

This opens up a field of discussion beyond the scope of this paper. But one can perceive that expressions such as, "To be spiritually minded is life and peace,” might be elevated from lofty platitude to the higher level of life's supreme laws, and the Christian conception that one found life through losing it, receive the sanction not only of the consecrated will, but be established as a valid principle which it was folly to disobey. And with it all will come a new certitude and freedom. In obedience to definitely established law the human spirit will find a nobler emancipation, and go forward to heights of achievement of which as yet we have not dreamed.

+ + +

The supreme change which one discerns upon the horizon of Man's spiritual life, however, is a growing conviction that in the final outcome Man is responsible for his own fate and the arbiter of his own destiny. The key to the future is in his own hands and he himself may unlock the doors of the great tomorrow of the human race.

Gradually he is perceiving that the miraculous does not exist, and there is no magic way in which he may be saved. Slowly he is learning the lesson, the lack of the knowledge of which has worked so much evil and proved so crippling to his own spirit, that he may expect no divine intervention in human affairs, and that if the Kingdom of God, for which in differing phrases and in varying tongues he has so fervently prayed, ever comes in fullness and power, it will be through the exercise of his own intelligence and the consecration of his own will. He will realize that the answer to the prayer:

"When wilt Thou save the people, O, God of mercy! When?”
abides within the chambers of his own heart. It will not be because:

"The Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear,"

but through the realization of his own innate powers and the consecrated might of his own desire.

"Heaven is not reached by a single bound;

But we build the ladder by which we rise

From the lowly earth to the vaulted skies,

And we mount to its summit round by round.”


Sometimes when I have allowed my imagination to play with this thought, I have even dared to think that the whole psychology associated with the idea of salvation might be outgrown. This goes infinitely deeper than a rejection of the doctrine of a substitutionary atonement. It penetrates to the very root and foundation of the religious life.

I know there is much that is rich and beautiful associated with the word "Salvation”, and that, there is profound reality behind Isaiah's beautiful testimony:

"They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

I bear grateful witness to ineffable moments in personal experience, in which it has appeared that heaven has reached down to earth and touched it with all the wonder of joyous deliverance: hours when it has seemed that the mystic veil has been drawn aside and I have entered into an Invisible Companionship, from which I have derived sustenance, strength, and a renewal of courage and joy. I deny none of this. But for it, I have sometimes wondered whether or not I could go on in the work of the ministry in faith and hope and love. Nevertheless, I do most profoundly feel that it is here that the cleavage between the past and the future of religion really abides. Not that there are no reservoirs of untapped spiritual power; not that there is no invisible realm in which we may enter into the holiest communion. But that the final responsibility for what man is and for what he may become individually and socially, belongs to himself and not to God! Not until he learns that there is no escape from the results of his own folly and sin: that there is no magician's route to the heavenly city, will he be truly free. Not in God's good time shall man be saved, but man may choose the day. Not when God wills, will peace and justice, brotherhood and love abound, but when man possesses the intelligent will to peace, is prepared to pay the price of justice, and sacrifices himself for brotherly love, shall these things be.

It will at once be asserted, however, that this destroys God's prerogative, and takes from him the honor which is His due; that this is the blankest and bleakest Humanism. If it is, I cannot help it. But as I read my New Testament and try to understand the spirit of Jesus, it appears, regardless of terminology, to be in harmony with the very essence of the Christian faith.

It is not a denial of the prerogative of God the Father. Rather is it en assertion of the obligation and responsibility of the prerogative of Man the Son. It is a challenge to the Spirit of Man to live supremely here upon the earth, as though he were a Child of Infinity. The trouble is that Christians have never taken Jesus' conception of Man's Divine Sonship at its face value. They have not dared to live gloriously, as though all things were theirs to do with as they would. But the coming age in religion will gloriously acclaim to a waiting world:

"Arise, ye Children of God! Clothe life with majesty, honor and power! Claim and enter into your heritage!"

Sometimes I have felt that, despite his conception of the Atonement, Paul caught a vision of this. How penetrative in insight the words:

"The earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the Sons of God… the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now."

But, be this as it may, the supreme moment has now arrived in Man’s spiritual unfolding, when, conscious of what he is in himself, he will through self-realization, claim his own.

In a daring passage of exquisite beauty, the author of "The Travel Diary of a Philosopher” says:

"Providence has literally abdicated in favor of the individual with free powers of determination…. Now man acts as God, with the same supreme right, and the trend of events proves that this position has not been usurped illegitimately.” I would change one preposition. Instead of saying: "Now man acts as God," I would say: "Now man acts for God.” In this I find the supreme mission of life. I do not believe in a purposeless world. I do not believe that the life-force is without direction and aim. But I do believe that fulfillment and realization, as far as this planet is concerned, depend upon Man. In a literal sense we are God's hands and feet. "The Spirit of Man is the Lamp of the Lord.” On the one hand, the injunction is "Work out your own salvation”; on the other there is the meaning of the process: "For it is God Who worketh in you, to will and to do according to His good pleasure.

There is no need to fear the rising tide of the Spirit of Man, for it is of God. Perhaps, for a time, some will deny or doubt His existence. It matters not. It is an inevitable reaction from the abject spiritual dependence of the past. But it is only a passing phase. It cannot endure. As Man grows, the pulses of his spirit will beat in closer rhythm with the Eternal Heart, and in deepened consciousness of Self will come a fuller awareness of kinship with the Larger Life whose Child he is. As surely as he is not an orphan in the universe, so also will there come the glad day of recognition, and he will know as he is known. And those who now have this sense of awareness within their hearts can afford to wait, for they know that this new sense of Man’s independence is no evil thing. It is a good thing, and perchance God would have it so. There is a time in the evolution of young life when the child boasts concerning his independence of parental care. This self-assertion is necessary to growth. But there comes a day when it is outgrown, and with it comes the experience of partnership and comradeship in common tasks. That day will surely come to those whose hearts beat high with hopes for man, and who, with holy daring, challenge the gates of destiny. "Beloved, now are we the Sons of God, but it doth not yet appear what we shall be!” Such is my personal faith. The high things of Man are the deep things of God. Therefore do I stretch hands of affectionate greeting to my Humanist brother. With the lips he may deny and question, but insofar as he forsakes the impulses of his selfish self and reaches out in faith, hope and good-will to the sons of men, believing and working for a better day—a heavenly city upon the earth, he is my comrade. He is doing God's work, and the God whom I love and serve will bless him. His ministry will be rich and fruitful. Seeking to love his neighbor even as himself, the gates of the heavenly habitations will open wide to him. Seeking to release the God in Man, he will find the God Who is the Author of Man. And even though he may deny my interpretation of the larger significance of what he is seeking, and even though his vision may be bounded by human horizons, still shall I rest content, confident that in the end all will be well.

It has been asserted by theologians throughout the centuries that Christianity is the Religion of the Incarnation. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself.” In the larger sense is not this supremely the Religion of the Dawning Age? Terminology may vary, and thought forms seek new expression, but beneath the deep underlying changes that mark the readjustments of our time, the challenge to justify religion itself, the rigorous application of the inductive method, the discovery, recognition and application of spiritual law; above all, man's growing sense of his responsibility to fate and the future, is it not this which is ripening to fulfillment: "Man is becoming conscious of the God who dwells within”? His new awareness of the illimitable reaches of his own spirit is conceived by the Holy Ghost. His fearless consecration to the Spirit of Truth will lead him out of bondage into the freer life of "the wide horizon's grander view”. And with gladness may we now proclaim: "God is in Man, drawing him unto Himself.” For are not St. Augustine's words an eternal parable of the soul—


"Thou hast made us for Thyself, and there is no rest until we find rest in Thee”?



[1] "The Underlying Significance of the Fundamental Changes in The Religion of Our Times, ”Paper Read at The Berry Street Conference, May 23, 1927, By HORACE WESTWOOD, Mission Preacher For The Unitarian Laymen's League, PUBLISHED BY THE UNITARIAN LAYMEN'S LEAGUE,  25 BEACON STREET, BOSTON. MASS.; reproduced in Unfinished pattern : my first fifty years 1884-1934, Horace Westwood. Cummington: Hissions Publishers, 1999, pp. ii-ix.