Faith in the Future 3 - The Power of Faith
November 18, 2000
This is the third of a series of articles on "Faith in the Future". The first in the series is "The Need for Faith".
This article continues the discussion in my article entitled "Religion in Retreat"
Having tried all manner of alternatives and found them wanting, perhaps it's time we gave religion a second look, approaching it with a new state of mind.
Swamped as we are in a culture which tends to see religion as a hindrance to intellectual and social progress, it would surprise many to realise that this is not necessarily so. Henry Chadwick, a leading historian of Christianity, points out that in the early days of the new movement's spread through the Roman Empire, its followers were keen to enter into discussions with the intellectuals of their day, and frequently came off well in the exchange. The history of Christianity down through the ages glitters with brilliant intellectual achievements and social innovations. Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were the leading lights of their day. Christian monks brought literacy to the barbarians of Europe. In a later time, Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist of the period known as the Age of Reason, was a fervent believer in God. Devout Catholics, Descartes and Pascal are numbered among the great philosophers. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, played a significant role in bringing about better conditions for workers in Britain as well as regenerating the spiritual life of many ordinary people. The founder of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel, was a Catholic monk. Down to the present, there are great benefactors of humanity who draw their primary inspiration from their Christian faith. Dr Martin Luther King is just one modern example who springs to mind. It is evident from this brief survey that religion is not necessarily bound up with reactionary social policy and second-rate thinking.
In its early days Christianity represented a major advance over the existing world-views of the peoples it spread amongst-and a highly disturbing one to some of the guardians of orthodox views at that time. Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), in encapsulates the early vitality and vigour of Christianity in the following passage:
A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol. Nor was the influence of Christianity confined to the period or to the limits of the Roman Empire. After a revolution of thirteen or fourteen centuries that religion is still professed by the nations of Europe, the most distinguished portion of human kind in arts and learning as well as in arms. By the industry and zeal of the Europeans it has been widely diffused to the most distant shores of Asia and Africa; and by the means of their colonies has been firmly established from Canada to Chili, in a world unknown to the ancients. (Gibbon, Edward, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in Pelikan, ed., p. 34)
And yet today, 200 years after Gibbon wrote those words, the vitality of Christianity seems to be no longer sufficient to attract the active support of the majority of Europeans, the very race which was responsible for carrying its message throughout a large part of the globe. What happened? One of the main factors was a growing divergence between the everyday concepts by which people conducted their lives and the realm of religious belief. A cleavage appeared, and constantly widened, between sacred and secular. One of the early cracks to show was the Catholic Church's conflict with Copernicus and Galileo. Copernicus calculated that the earth revolved around the sun. The church condemned Copernicus' theory in 1616 and later condemned Galileo for supporting his findings.
Darwin's and Huxley's later collision with the ecclesiastical authorities of the Church of England is also usually mentioned in this context. Charles Darwin took the existing theory of evolution and developed it into a formidable science through his life-long researches into geology and biology. Huxley, a fellow-member of the Royal Society, publicised Darwin's theories and used them in his personal battle against the religious establishment of Victorian England.
In hindsight, what is so very puzzling about these episodes is that religious leaders found it necessary to go to battle at all. Today's Catholics apparently find no detriment to their faith in accepting, as everyone else does, that ours is a tiny planet circling a medium-sized star in a vast universe. In June this year Pope John Paul II visited Copernicus' birthplace and praised his scientific achievements. (Reported by CNN.com on June 7, 1999, "Pope praises once-condemned findings of Copernicus".) As to Darwin, Fernandez-Armesto put the matter succinctly as follows: "Darwinism itself was ambiguous. It was ambiguous about Providence, for whereas Darwin and Huxley conceived evolution as a mechanism for eliminating the need of God, the likes of Mivart and Charles Kingsley hailed it as God's way of mediating His purpose." (Fernandez-Armesto, p. 438) If sufficiently agile religious minds can take scientific advances in their stride, why should there have been a problem? To understand this, we need to consider the human liking for tradition. Mostly we prefer the well-trodden path. As Jesus said: "No man also having drunk old wine straightaway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better." (Luke 5:39)
When the Founder of Christianity made this observation, He was surely referring to a major theme of His message: the clash between entrenched tradition—"the old is better"—and the unrestrained voice of truth. In the Gospels, the tension builds in Jesus' encounters with the establishment of the day in various incidents, such as their disapproval of His acts of healing on the Sabbath day, His exposure of hypocrisy by the accusers of a woman caught in the act of adultery, and his discussions with the legal experts in Jerusalem, where his penetrating answers to their provocative questions showed up the woeful inadequacy of their attitudes and views. The culmination of the divine drama of His earthly life was His arrest, the sentence of death imposed on Him in the dead of night, and the cruel execution before jeering, cursing crowds on Good Friday. However this was not to be the end, for the spiritual forces released by His sacrifice were destined to soon reinvigorate His momentarily dejected followers, and turn them into conquerors of hearts and souls, leaving a legacy of love and courage that shines out to this day.
What were the factors which led to the death of Christ? Among them we may observe the rigid and narrow views held by the religious leaders who opposed Him, their fixed resistance to the vitality and power of His message, and their anxiety to retain their own power and privileges. When they disapproved of the good He did, they attributed His power to the devil! Might we not further observe that similar attitudes were demonstrated by those religious leaders of a later age who opposed Galileo, on the grounds that his findings were inconsistent with the established doctrines of the Church, and were a threat to its authority. Might we not conclude from such occurrences that when religion comes into disrepute, it is because it has blocked itself off from the very springs of truth which feed it. When Jesus stood before Pilate to answer the charges brought against Him, His defence consisted of these words: "Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice." (John 18:37)
A few found this voice so wonderfully attractive that they fell under its spell immediately and gave the rest of their lives for it. The amazing, immediate, electrified response of some who met Him is borne out by this account from the gospel of Matthew:
And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him. And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)
Has this voice, once so fresh and powerful, lost its influence? In the my next article, "The Renewal of Religion", we reply to some modern sceptics.
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The author is a follower of the Baha'i Faith. For further information about the Baha'i Faith, please visit the Baha'i World site. at www.bahai.org
©Copyright 2000, John Deverell