Liberal Religion in the Post Christian Era

Edward A. Cahill

Berry Street Lecture, 1974


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

New York City, New York

June 25, 1974




Shortly after I accepted the invitation of the Berry Street Conference Committee to deliver the Essay at this years meeting of the Conference I met Jim Hutchinson in Boston. After congratulating me Jim said, "By the way, don't forget you are supposed to do an essay and not a lecture.” When I got home to Concord I was still thinking about this and I realized that I was unsure as to the difference. With the help of a dictionary I now know. A lecture is an exposition of a given subject, delivered before an audience or a class for the purpose of instruction. An essay, on the other hand, is a composition on a subject usually presenting the personal views of the author. My offering this morning is an essay presenting my personal views, buttressed as best I can, on a subject which I hope is of concern to you, my colleagues, in the liberal church.


One other thing by way of opening remarks. At the time of the merger the Berry Street Conference and its traditions were almost lost in the shuffle. The conference had existed for almost one hundred and forty years as an annual informal conference of ministers. There was no structure, only a tradition which had been maintained over those years because individuals cared enough about it to see that it continued. From my point of observation Jim Hutchinson was more responsible than any one of us for personally seeing that the Conference was not lost in the shuffle of merger. Jim stayed with it until the UUMA was organized and was prepared to take over responsibility for its continuance.


We all owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Hutchinson.


Now to the subject of my Essay: Liberal Religion in the Post Christian Era. Shall we begin with a few definitions, or to put it another way, a few explanations of what I mean when I use certain terms. Some of these explanations will involve a reconstruction, with an implied interpretation, of historical developments which have brought us to our present position which have described in my title as a Post Christian Era.


Let me start with Christianity for obviously you must understand what I mean when I use this term if we are to understand what a Post Christian Era means in the context of this essay. Let it be understood that I understand that there are many ways of defining or describing Christianity. For my purpose I shall confine myself to a theological definition of Christianity. My rationalization for reducing Christianity to its theological definition can be stated quite simply. It involves a rule of logic as applied to definitions, classes, and categories. When one describes an apple tree one assumes it has roots, a trunk, branches, leaves, etc., which are common to the genus, tree. An apple tree is an apple tree simply because it produces or grows apples. This is its distinguishing characteristic which makes it uniquely an apple tree. Thus with Christianity, when we try to define it we look for the unique thing which it alone among religions possesses. This unique characteristic is its salvationist theology. This is the way the Christian Church defines itself. Certainly nothing that happened at the Vatican Council qualified by one iota the hard core body of salvationist dogma around which the super-structure of Roman Catholic doctrine has been built. Nothing in ecumenical Protestantism has happened to qualify this basic theological meaning of Christianity. At Amsterdam in 1948 the World Council of Churches made a self-conscious decision in defining a Christian as one who believes in "the saving grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.” This was reaffirmed at Evanston with the slogan, "The Hope of the World is in Christ,” and strengthened at Calcutta. Christianity is not ethics, it is not the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not the Golden Rule. Christianity is salvationist theology with a consistently understood system of dogma.


When we get to liberal religion a different kind of situation confronts us for here we are dealing not with a specific content of belief, but rather with an attitude and a methodology. Liberalism in religion in a broad sense is best contrasted with orthodoxy and the methodology by which it receives its truth and the attitude with which it holds it. The method of orthodoxy is also its basic dogma, namely, Revelation. The dogma of revelation assumes a supernatural external source of truth. The contrast with orthodoxy is well stated by Commission I in The Free Church in a Changing World. (page 4)

One of the most distinctive aspects of our movement is our acceptance of open questions  we find our identity in the degree to which we insist  that the spirit must be unfettered in all its expressions…We formulate our convictions as clearly as we can, but we regard our formulations as neither closed      nor complete.

When I speak, then, of liberal religion I am speaking of a movement which exhibits the following characteristics, to paraphrase Earl Morse Wilber: the exercise of the free use of reason in an open atmosphere of mutual respect. The difference between traditional orthodox Christianity and the liberal in religion is not in the content of belief but first in the source of belief, second in the method, and third in the attitude with which the belief is held. The orthodox Christian holds his beliefs with a dogmatic inflexibility. The liberal in religion holds his beliefs subject to further testing and the discovery or acquisition of new knowledge.


Actually, from an historical point of view Christianity does not lend itself to a simple consistent definition. It is many faceted and as a term descriptive of a culture it has moved into virtually all aspects of Western Civilization and left its mark.


We can describe the history of Christianity as consisting of two main streams. A non-dogmatic stream relating primarily to the teachings of Jesus and a dogmatic stream based on the creed of salvationist theology. The non-dogmatic stream has been primarily ethical. Christian history which is related to values, human behavior and this world derives from it. The dogmatic stream has been primarily theological. It has been supernatural, other worldly and its major concerns have been with justification, grace, eternity, salvation, Christ crucified and resurrection. The claim to absoluteness, catholicity, and to dogmatic monopoly derives here. These two streams are not unrelated but they are clearly distinct. The Christian Humanists symbolized by Erasmus derive from the non-dogmatic stream while Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are representative of the dogmatic stream.


The political and social power of the post-Constantine Church was based upon making the primary emphasis the theological dogmatism of salvationist theology. Absolute power was sanctioned by the assertion of absolute truth. The combination of the absolute power of the Empire sanctioned by the assertion of absolute truth by the church brought the church to the position of wielding almost absolute power in the determining of cultural, political, and economic behavior.


I would mention two factors, among others, which were major contributors to the erosion of Christianity as the prime motivator of behavior and the supplier of the value framework within which private and public life was carried on. Again, these two factors or movements are distinct but interrelated.


Christianity is an extreme instance of a religion founded almost purely on belief. In Buddhism fulfillment comes as the fruit of moral, psychic and intellectual self discipline. Judaism and Islam call for observance of rigorous social and ritualistic prescripts. Christianity calls for the acceptance on faith of a precisely defined belief system.


Although Christianity is a belief system its overwhelming success in Europe was due to its becoming a state religion, not to its theology. In a real sense it interrupted the natural evolution of European culture. I was talking about this phenomenon with a group of Holy Ghost Fathers at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. They described to me the existence of thousands of rural and village enclaves that in reality had never been Christianized. They had been glossed over with a thin veneer of Christian ritual and symbolism. It was inevitable that the natural in Western man reassert itself. Once this began to happen the erosion process was under way. The de-Christianizing of the west found expression in the renaissance, in humanism and in the reformation. The reformation brought about a reversal in the value system and an accommodation with capitalism and nationalism.


The second factor which I would mention is what A.N. Whitehead describes as the "rise of modern science.” In his book, Science and the Modern World, he says:


The sixteenth century of our era saw the disruption of Western Christianity and the rise of modern science. It was an age of ferment. Nothing was settled, though much was opened -- new worlds and new ideas. In science, Copernicus and Vesalius may be chosen as representative-figures: they typify the new cosmology and the emphasis on direct observation...In every way (the rise of modern science) contrasts with the contemporary religious movement...The thesis is...that this quiet growth of science has recolored our mentality. p.lff.


Whitehead, to illustrate the impact of this development, quotes William James in a letter to his brother Henry as he describes his problem in writing his great treatise on The Principles of Psychology, "I have to forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts.”


There is a background for this emergence of the scientific spirit as a special discipline. During the period roughly between Nicea and the early renaissance philosophy, which included science, was described as the handmaiden of theology. By the fourth century Christianity for all practical purposes had given up hope for an imminent "second coming.” After its conversion to Constantine it learned the art of organization and the importance of the institution and law. It quickly crystallized its belief system into inflexible dogma supported by law and established itself as the unifying spiritual, military and political force of Western culture. Under this atmosphere philosophy and science became for all practical purposes identical with dogmatic theology.


I know that marking off periods and dates to symbolize great changes is arbitrary. I shall run the risk and take Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century as a critical point - a symbol - of the breaking down of the closed system of the past and the opening of the door for philosophy and science. It was Aquinas who defined the two realms of knowledge - the realm of Faith and the realm of Reason. He said, in effect, that man's reason was competent to explore and investigate the natural world. There was of course a supernatural realm and here the method of faith was supreme. There was the qualification that whenever the two came into conflict the realm of Faith, the province of the Church, took precedence and was superior. Luther buttressed this separation of the realms by his clear cut dichotomy between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World.


The practical effect over the next few centuries was to free science and philosophy from theology as long as it was acknowledged that Faith was superior. Aquinas, to be sure, defined science as the understanding of facts in terms of previously accepted general principles. Observation was the mere filling in of facts supporting the accepted universal principles. But once this tentative freedom from theology was achieved, a movement was begun that has not yet stopped.


This is not the place nor do we have the time for a full history of scientific development. Yet, there are a few high points which mark significant breakthroughs or revolutions, if you will, which deserve because of their implications, some notice. Whitehead, as we have noted, marked the emergence of modern science with Copernicus. Previous to Copernicus all science such as existed, principally Ptolemaic astronomy and Euclidean mathematics, were under the influence of Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions: the basic test of any presumed body of knowledge is its systematic completeness. Another assumption was that the earth is the center of the universe. This was a general law based on self-evident principle, in other words, an axiom. The circle was the perfect geometrical form so all movements had to be explained by circular movements. In the case of Ptolemaic astronomy all movements of the planets and stars had to be explained in relation to the earth as the center and in circular orbits or combinations, called epicycles, around the earth.


As long as the assumptions were maintained as dogma this was the only way that astronomy could proceed. The realm of Faith took precedence over Reason. Newly observed phenomena made the system of epicycles increasingly complex and Copernicus ran into difficulties with this closed system. Copernicus took a big step. He abandoned the dogma, or at least part of it. He took what inductive logicians call an inductive leap of imagination. He abandoned the dogma of the earth as the center and constructed a new system assuming that the earth moved around the sun. He only leaped part way, for he retained circular motion and the now less complicated system of epicycles. The work of Keppler and Tycho Brahe broke the old system completely. The perfect circle was abandoned for an elliptical motion with the sun at one of the foci of the ellipse.


Isaac Newton represents a continuation and expansion of this breakthrough. With his system of mechanics he set the stage for the tremendous advance in the physical sciences and technology. Once the new assumptions were accepted the scientific revolution proceeded in full swing. You know the story - mystery after mystery fell before the expanding curiosity of the newly freed scientific spirit. The 19th century marks the culmination of the philosophical and scientific movement begun by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton: This movement produced not only knowledge, but unprecedented practical results.


In this process, at first unconsciously, and later explicitly, 19th century science attempted to become a substitute for theology and the church. It began to develop a philosophy based on the assumptions of natural science -- the indestructible atom, the concepts of independent space and time. The attempt was to construct a new theology based on scientific knowledge. It attempted to construct by scientific method a map of the universe. This led to the conclusion that ultimate reality was of the nature of matter and that all could be explained by mechanics. Nineteenth century science still held to the Euclidean assumption that any valid body of knowledge is presumed to be systematically complete.


The 20th century has seen great changes in these expectations. In Conant's book, Modern Science and Modern Man, we have a clear exposition of these developments which have constituted the ingredients of a new scientific revolution. Briefly stated, the advent of Relativity in the realm of astrophysics and quantum mechanics at the submicroscopic realm exploded the 19th century hope for a unified world theory consistent in principle throughout. What we now have are three basic systems of physical theory each one of which works and, to use Conant's term, is "fruitful” in its own defined realm and which are unrelated to each other in terms of the assumptions upon which they are based. Newtonian physics is still valid for the moderate world in which man lives and which is in reach of his immediate experience. Einstein's relativity is valid scientific "policy” when we conjure with, the cosmic dimension of astrophysics. The quantum mechanics deriving from the work of Planck, Bohr, Heissenberg and others becomes the working tool when we venture into the submicroscopic dimension of subatomic particles or quanta of energy.


Eddington, reviewing all this, states that we may therefore say that it is an hypothesis in physics supported by observation that there is no objective law of governance, unless, chance is described as a law.


We now face up to a world where the scientific enterprise wedded to an efficient technology has clearly pushed the religious institution to the periphery of vital concern. By this I mean that science has become the dominating fact of our culture. Religion at point after point, to quote Whitehead, has beat "an undignified retreat during many generations...(and this retreat) has at last almost entirely destroyed the intellectual authority of religious thinkers.” (Ibid p. 23L-)


I think Whitehead is saying, and I agree, that in the centuries long conflict between science and religion, science has clearly won. Whitehead deplores the decline of religion as a vital factor in our culture and he expresses a hope that the ethical idealism so essential for survival will be forthcoming in a religion which can catch from and learn from the scientific enterprise the humility necessary to evolve and change to meet new and frightening levels of threat.


The situation which confronts us is this: Christianity has moved through its history from a position of almost absolute dominance in the determination of cultural, social and economic patterns to its present precarious position as a vestigial institution on the periphery of our civilization. The process which has brought this about is called secularization and it is this situation against the background of a previously entrenched Christianity which is aptly described as a post-Christian era.


The fact of the post-Christian secularized era has been recognized for years in the writing of many of the professional theologians. Heinz Zahrnt in his book, The Question of God, in which he presents a review of Protestant theology in the 20th century, puts it this way:


In the modern age, secularization, the ordering of the world on its own terms, has           overwhelmed every province of life like an avalanche....the process of          secularization has largely been completed and is the accepted characteristic of our      whole life and existence. (p 126)


Werner Heisenberg describes the situation this way: "For the first time in the history of mankind man everywhere is faced only with himself.” (Lecture, Munich 1954). Heinz Zahrnt goes on: "Christian faith must be confronted in ruthless honesty with the changed reality of the world...and also the changed relationship of man to the reality of the world....” (ibid p 12)


There are some interesting and provocative implications which we can draw when we face up to the fact of secularization. It means that man is delivered from Christian theological and metaphysical control over his reason and language. It is the loosing of the world from religious and quasi religious understanding of itself. All closed or dogmatic world views become irrelevant as well as supernatural myths and symbols. Harvey Cox quotes an unknown observer as describing it as "the defatalization of history,” the discovery by man that he has been left with the world on his hands, and he can no longer blame fortune or the furies for what he does with it....(The Secular City, Harvey Cox p 2)....and perhaps most importantly man can no longer expect supernatural intervention to achieve fulfillment. It is a time, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, when man has come of age.


The Christian theologians have been vigorous in their descriptive recognition of the process of secularization and the fact of the post-Christian era, but from where I sit they have missed the boat. They are quick to expose and abandon many of the historically dated ways of speaking about God and Christ and eternity and resurrection, but only to clear the slate for what they call new and contemporary ways of speaking about the assumed dogmatic essence of Christianity. Zahrnt in closing his book, previously mentioned, says, "the gospel is eternal, and theology is temporal.” (ibid p 359) They fail to recognize that secularization has bypassed and undercut Christianity and has gone on to other things.


Religious world-views must now be understood as relative and not absolute. The gods of traditional religion live on as private fetishes or the patrons of congenial groups and they play no role in the public life of the secular world. We are in fact in a secular age of unbelief. We have abandoned the Platonic attempt to find unchanging verities. We can no longer expect automatic and eternal solutions and this implies confidence that we can create our own destinies. It is no longer adequate for Christianity to say to a secularized world that Christian Faith is Jesus Christ and all that that implies. Even Bultman, who has tried most courageously to save what he believes to be the essence of Christianity from the ravages of the post-Christian era says stubbornly that "revelation consists in nothing other than the fact of Jesus Christ.”


The basis of all Christian faith has been challenged in the modern world. The basic elements of salvationist Christian theology are not only unintelligible to modern man in the post-Christian era, they are meaningless. No one nowadays takes into account the possibility of the course of nature and history being interrupted by the direct intervention of transcendental forces, and still less is it possible for anyone to understand that the meaning of life may be determined by such forces in any way. Modern man no longer understands himself as a dualist being, always open to the intervention of supernatural forces, but regards himself as a unified being complete in himself with his thinking will and emotion originating within himself. Again to put it in Bonhoeffer's phrase, man has come of age. This, I believe, is an irreversible point, man has been left with the world on his hands and he can no longer blame fortune or the furies for what he does with it.


We are now confronted with a situation where for all practical purposes secularization is complete. We are deep into the post-Christian era and this modern world still carries on its back as excess baggage the structure of a Christian world. Whitehead in his diagnosis deplored the decline of religion as a vital factor in our culture, and he expresses a hope that the ethical idealism so essential for survival will be forthcoming.


For a few moments let us step outside of religion and describe it in functional terms. I do not mean the categories which I describe to be taken as all inclusive. All religions, as I understand them, have attempted in varying degrees to serve the society in which they emerged by fulfilling the following functions:


1. EXPLANATION: To provide explanations and answers to the eternal or final cause questions and to provide the mythical and legendary background against which the mysterious void of the unknown could be filled.


2.PROTECTION: The mysteries and the forces of the natural world held many threats to the survival of the community and its members. Religions developed not only explanations but methods--magic and ritual--for providing a degree of protection, and when the protection failed explanation took over. This is the origin of the Theodicy problem inherent in Job.


3.ETHICAL: All communities have an inherent need for a kind of ethical cement to bind them together. Religion historically has provided these ethical norms and provided the sanctions for their enforcement. The role of the Hebrew prophets is an, example of this function in operation at a high level.


4.WISH FULFILLMENT OR IDEALISM: An ideal or a dream is an idea or a hope which has the possibility of becoming real. Religion provides a channel or a means of projecting the dreams, the hopes, the aspirations of a people into the future as a target or a goal to be achieved.


The purpose and function of science as it operates in and on the natural world can be defined 1 - as Comprehension and 2 - control. As a result of secularization and the clear cut ascendancy of science and technology in the modern world Christianity has been superseded in the first two functions, namely, Explanation and Protection.


Man has always been concerned with these two functions. He has always sought answers which would help him understand the mysteries of the universe. He has always sought ways and means of protecting himself from the unknown. He has felt desire, which he has described as purpose. He has observed the cosmos in its beauty and its terror and he has tried to relate himself meaningfully. Through most of man's history his desire to know has been overshadowed only by his ignorance. In this situation he has used guesswork and has created myths and rationalizations.


The problem between our scientific world and Christianity occurs at points one and two: explanation and protection; comprehension and control. Science, once freed from domination, has moved on at an unprecedented rate to establish a pragmatic superiority in the area of protection or control and in the process has rocked the foundations of the world view affirmed by the traditional religious institution. Christianity for centuries aggressively, and now passively, has affirmed a monopoly right in the area of explanation. It is this dogmatic intransigence that has brought it to the periphery of our concern and in the process it has lost its authority and power in the realms of ethics and idealism.


Ethical regulation of the vast sources of power which science has conjured up from the raw material of the universe is necessary if we are to move into the future with any hope for a better and more noble world.


As a result of 500 years of this cultural schizophrenia between science and the dominant religious institution we find ourselves in a truncated situation. From the pragmatic point of view we have indiscriminately developed the scientific and technological ability to destroy our species two-fold. First by the indiscriminate proliferation of atomic and hydrogen power and second by the multiplication of people and power to the point where the planet takes over and saves itself from people. All of this while Christianity, the institution we traditionally looked to for guidance and direction in the fields of ethics and idealism, is removed from effective influence.


Liberal religion is a protest against the artificial compartmentalization which has been produced by Christianity's reaction to the process of secularization. In the face of man's need today we affirm the wholeness of life.


Man is not a body separate from his soul. He is not a mind distinct from his heart. He is not an intellect divorced from his emotions. Man is all of those things integrated into a magnificent organic totality and this is the essence of our humanity.


In facing up to man's spiritual needs in our difficult critical world we reject the assumption that the regenerative power is supernatural and external to man. This means that for us there is no power in embroidered wall mottoes; there is no patent medicine however poetic which will heal our ills; there is no expectation of divine miraculous intervention into the natural scheme of things on our behalf. Yet it is not all up to us alone. The individual in his search for strength and value with which to meet his problems is not alone. We need not start from scratch for there is a deep reservoir of experience -- the millennia of human search and struggle -- upon which we can draw.


We have said that liberalism in religion is a method involving among others the principles of freedom, reason and tolerance. These principles and the method do not stand alone. They presuppose something more. Underneath and behind the method are certain premises tested by time, history and experience. In a real sense these premises demand of us a faith. They constitute the faith of a liberal. The prevalent orthodoxy has its premises also -- the power of regeneration is supernatural and lies outside of man. The faith required is submission. The faith of the liberal is in the wholeness of life, in the organic unity of all of life, in the assumption that the saving regenerative power which man needs will be found in life itself, in man.


Now let us spell out more precisely these premises upon which we build our faith. As religious liberals we have confidence in man. We accept the fact that man exists as our starting point and we add to it our belief that whatever purpose there is will be found in life itself. When we say we have confidence in man we are saying a lot more than the mere acceptance of his existence. We are saying that we believe man is capable of good, that he can grow and develop, that he is, in a word, capable of change. We are rejecting the assumption of a spontaneous creation. For us human nature was not fixed for all time. Man is, rather, an evolving problem-solving creature with an open-ended future into which he may move creatively. All expectation of progress, growth and development is based on this premise.


We have confidence in the community of man. By this we mean that man belongs together, he is not an isolated individual. Only in community does man begin to find meaning. Together with his fellows man can solve the problems of existence. In cooperation, with mutual aid, in the love relationship, man rises to the full height of his potential as a human being. In the tension between man's self-conscious ego and his natural inter-relatedness in the community of man we find the spiritual dynamic which leads us to meaning.


We have confidence in the universe, in its natural law and order, in its dependability. This means we do not expect miracles. The universe does not play favorites. In a sense the universe is democratic in that there is one law for all of life and no one is exempt. We like to think that the universe is a good and friendly place for man but at least we know it to be neutral. The regularity we observe in the universe we believe applies to man's social life as well as to the stars. The "if” clause in Hebrew prophecy was based on this premise. Out of man's long struggle for survival certain principles of human relationship have emerged upon which the survival of the community depends. "If” there is not honesty in the market place, "if” there is not justice at the gate, the community will be destroyed, thundered the Hebrew prophet. We too shall be destroyed "if” we ignore the laws of good and decent human relationship.


There are no guarantees that man will be good, that he will succeed in solving his problems, that he will develop a civilization of the whole man. It is because of this absence of guarantees that liberalism demands a strong faith. Those who know little of liberal religion often assume that it is an easy religion. Quite the contrary is true. The faith of the liberal is a hard demanding faith, one that puts things squarely up to man.


The universe gives us life, with its variety and potentiality. It gives us the time and the opportunity to grow towards the realization of our human potentiality, and it gives us the values and emergent principles by means of which we can live a life of joy and promise. This is the challenge to liberal religion in the post-Christian era -- to face up to life in these terms -- to heal the false split in ourselves and our culture which divides us against ourselves and dissipates our inner strength. If we will live and act upon the faith of the liberal -- that our salvation must come through the development of our resources -- then we shall creatively achieve the deep spiritual satisfactions which come with dignity and self respect, with adventure and growth.