Character—The First Line of Defense


By DR. ROBERT GORDON SPROUL, President of the University of California

Delivered before the Biennial Council of Congregational and Christian Churches, meeting in Berkeley, August 17, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 699-702

THERE are still some, in these days, who believe that the decline of spiritual force in the world is the result of conflict between truth which we speak of as scientific and truth which one describes as metaphysical. This I do not believe; there can be no incommensurable conflict within the concept of truth and no real conflict among its varied aspects. As Dean Willard L. Sperry, of the Harvard Divinity School, has pointed out: "If we can persuade students to live the Truth for its own sake, then all these other incidental problems which we have been discussing will slowly solve themselves. But if we fail at the central point, then we become the dauntless soldiers of a forlorn hope, so far as religion in the American college goes." Theology may conflict with other ologies, for all ologies are but the ideas of men, but there can be no conflict between the material and spiritual once man has discerned wherein consists the truth that lies in each. Bacon said it all three hundred years ago in his essay, Of Atheism: "I had rather believe all the fables in the legend, and the Talmud and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without mind; and, therefore, God never wrought miracles to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it. It is true that a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity."

What conflict there is today between science and religion is not in the intellectual realm, where once consciously we met it, but rather in the practical realm, where everyday unconsciously we confront it. As Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick says, "For every person who today gives up religion because intellectually he cannot believe in it, one suspects that there are a hundred persons who give up religion because, in view of what science can do for them, they feel that, practically, they do not need religion. The scientists have done their work magnificently. That is the trouble. They have forged far ahead. They have outstripped our moral character, our spiritual quality, our religious faith. The fact, however, is not, as so many think, that the more science we have, the more religion can be discarded, but rather, that the more science we have, the more character-building religion is demanded." Let me put myself squarely behind that last statement of Dr. Fosdick's. "The more science we have, the more character-building religion is demanded." Science can never plumb the depths of the human heart or encompass the vast desert of its desires. Indeed, science itself depends upon that which is the very essence of religion, for science, too, has its high origin in devotion to something greater thanitself, the disinterested love of truth, out of which alone, as from the inexhaustible artesian well, flows all its potentialities for humanity.

In recent years that were ending an era though we knew it not, many men resolved the so-called conflict between science and religion, as Fosdick noted and I have just quoted, on what seemed to them a practical basis, in favor of science. Today, as they stand at one of the great, decisive moments in history, when the engines of the machine age are destroying the lives and liberties of men, would any one of them dare to answer that science suffices? I think not. Threatening forces of unmeasured but clearly demonstrated strength are on the march and heading—whither? There is a great and imperative necessity for some countervailing or, I think more accurately, some directive and, in some degree, complementary force, that shall rally the recuperative powers of mankind and win the race with catastrophe. H. G. Wells has spoken of education as such a force, but much as I respect the power and influence of education, I cannot agree with him that it has the necessary speed and stamina for such a race. It is not the minds but the souls of men that must be regenerated if catastrophe is not surely to come. Men and nations must have not so much a change of mind as a change of heart. They must not so much base action upon the sandy foundation of human reason, as upon the rock of Divine will. They must listen to God and obey, lest they listen to Hitler or Stalin and grovel. The first line of defense, the one impregnable fort of every nation is the character of its citizens. Rich though a nation may be in land and trade, numerous in population, secure behind concrete defenses, yet, without faith, it is as nothing and its feet are set on the highroad to destruction. Whereas the nation rich in character and rich in faith, is also rich in strength. For character is wealth and faith is power, and science, acknowledging these supreme realities, gladly takes its proper place as humanity's handmaid.

Seventeen years ago, Woodrow Wilson, in one of his last messages to the American people, said: "Our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually." He had observed the revolution in Russia and he was fearful lest the discontent which was even then becoming manifest elsewhere as well, might bring similar and equally dire effects in other countries, and even here. These effects could be prevented, he felt, only if capitalism and democracy, which are inextricably interwoven, were made truly rational through permeation by "the spirit of Christ." A return by all classes to the basic Christian doctrine of "sympathy and helpfulness and a willingness to forego self-interest in order to promote the welfare, happiness, and contentment of others" was his prescription for an ailing world. You can't hope, he said,for peace in world affairs or in national affairs until you have it in the individual hearts of men. That is not the least true of the many true things that Woodrow Wilson said. Nor is his a solitary voice. The senior statesman of the Republican party, Herbert Hoover, has spoken similarly. I quote: "The world has come out of confusion before because some men and women stood solid. They held safety for the world, not because they knew the solution to all these confusions, not because they even had the power to find solutions. They stood firm and they held the light of civilization until the furies passed because they individually held to certain principles of life, of morals, and of spiritual values. These are the simple concepts of truth, justice, tolerance, mercy, and respect for the dignity of the common man. To hold and lift these banners in the world will go far to solve its confusions." I would add only that these are the traditional banners of the Church of Christ.

Theoretically, these are also the banners under which the United States of America marches. At least, we impress upon every coin of our realm, down to the last penny, the words, "In God we trust." We used to make an exception of the buffalo nickel, but when we put the simulacrum of Thomas Jefferson on that humble coin, we put those same mystic words right across the bridge of his nose. It was a kind of compensation, I suppose, for thus memorializing a "free thinker." But though we put this motto on our money, you will look for it in vain over the doors of our public schools. We have felt that it was necessary to keep religion out of the schools because men have made religion partisan and contentious, and to confine instruction to "the facts of everyday life." Anything as stable as an eternal verity is obviously statistically impossible, and therefore dangerous to youth.

Indeed, we go further and protect our young from all that is impractical, and immaterial, and beyond the bounds of reason. Even art has now to have a message; if it is beautiful we damn it as "pretty"; if it shows neither structural nor human dilapidation, we say it is not "honest." The accent is on ugliness, the emphasis on the triumph of ugliness. In literature the era is one of garbage collecting and hero smashing. Biographies have upset the idols of the youth of earlier generations and exposed their feet of clay. Poetry is said to be "response to environment," rather than emotional insight into truth, goodness, and beauty. History interprets the Constitution as the result of efforts by speculators in government bonds to make good their gambles. The spotlight has been shifted from the triumphs in American life to its shortcomings and its failures. We hear little now of the rise from log cabin to White House, and a lot about "the lost generation" and the "tragedy of youth." We seldom read, except in the advertisements of the General Electric Company or the National Manufacturers Association, of the hard-won fruits of the industrial revolution, which have raised the physical standards of human life to the highest point ever reached in the long procession of the ages. Instead, we are told day in and day out of technological unemployment, lack of security, and the soul-numbing service of the machine. Determinedly the story of the race has been robbed of all sense of victory and achievement, and interpreted as a harrowing record of exploitation and frustration. How this course may win devotion and thus serve the cause of our democratic ways of life, in a competitive world where Communism and Naziism are sworn to destroy them, has not yet been revealed. The old proverb has it that nothing succeeds without enthusiasm, that is to say, unless God is in it, and the old proverb is right.

Essentially Americanism, which in democracy, is a moraland spiritual adventure, concerned primarily with a sound and workable philosophy of life, summed up in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, respect for human personality, and recognition of the dignity and value of the individual. In his brilliant statement on The Coming Victory of Democracy, Thomas Mann tells us he believes in democracy because he believes in freedom, and he believes in freedom because he believes in human nature and the dignity of man, who is more than a depersonalized unit in the state. Man is a spiritual being whom it is the duty of the state to serve. He is more than a slave to be kept in order and submission by the crack of a master's whip. "The essential man," says he, "is not the creature who hurls down bombs on children, but the mind that devised the flying machine, the seeker and builder, not the destroyer."

Religious liberty is the primary source of our civil liberties, and of all our freedom—free speech, free press and radio, freedom of assembly, and the right of petition. When we explore the history of our institutions we come very soon to the matter of religious belief. It was the great religious awakening of the sixteenth century that brought about the political awakening of the seventeenth. The American Revolution was preceded by the great religious revival of the middle eighteenth century, which had its effect both in England and in the colonies. When the common people turned to the reading of the Bible as they did in the Netherlands and in England, when they were stirred by the spirit of reform as they were in the days of Robert Browne and Thomas Cartwright, the way was being prepared for a Cromwell and for a Washington. The whole system of our republican government was enfolded in the idea of the Congregational Churches as explained by Browne in his book, the substance of whose long title is The Life and Manners of All True Christians. It was because religion had given the common people a new importance, a new glory, a new driving force, that they demanded a new freedom and a new government.

One of the outstanding characteristics of the early settlers in America was the belief that man is a free individual with personal moral responsibility in matters of faith. They came to the shores of a new continent impregnated with the principles of personal moral responsibility, the right of private judgment, and the right of free assembly which, together, filled them with a fervent passion and unshakable belief in the inward spirituality of the individual. They based their political philosophy and their economic system on the concept that there is something about the human spirit that is sacred; that there is a place in the human soul that no government and no man may justly enter, where reside those inalienable rights that the Declaration of Independence later asserted in such soul-stirring periods. As John Adams put it, "You have rights antecedent to all earthly government; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the great Legislator of the Universe." That, of course, is religion quite as much as democracy, and we of this generation cannot reject the one and retain the other.

There is a wonderful story in the Scriptures, the story of the Shumanite's son. You remember the little boy had a sunstroke, and he came to his mother saying, "My head, my head," and his mother took him into her lap, and he laid there for a while and died. She sent for the prophet Elisha, who did not come at once but sent his servant Gehazi, with his staff. So Gehazi brought Elisha's staff and placed it on the little boy, and the Scriptures tell us there was neither voice nor hearing and nothing happened. Then the mother called for the prophet himself and Elisha came and "lay upon the child, and put his mouth on his mouth, and his eyes uponhis eyes, and his nose upon his nose, and he stretched himself upon the child and the body of the child was warm"; and the life came back to the little boy and he placed him in his mother's arms. What that parable means, of course, is that you cannot get something for nothing. Gehazi had not got that contact with God out of which comes wonder-working power. Gehazi was just an ordinary person who had not living faith. And democracy without the backlog of Christianity is just another government whose bright flame of yesterday may be but ashes tomorrow.

It is thoughts like these that the editors of the magazine, Fortune, must have had in mind when they wrote: ". . . there has been a declining emphasis on spiritual values and a rising emphasis on materialism as a doctrine of life. . . . We have, therefore, the peculiar spectacle of a nation which, to some imperfect but nevertheless considerable extent, practices Christianity without actively believing in Christianity. We are asked to turn to the Church for our enlightenment, but when we do so we find that the voice of the Church is not inspired. The voice of the Church today, we find, is the echo of our own voices. And the result of this experience, already manifest, is disillusionment. There is only one way out of the spiral. The way out is the sound of a voice, not our voice, but a voice coming from something not ourselves, in the existence of which we cannot disbelieve. It is the earthly task of the pastors to hear this voice, to cause us to hear it, and to tell us what it says. If they cannot hear it, or if they fail to tell us, we, as laymen, are utterly lost. Without it we are no more capable of saving the world than we were capable of creating it in the first place."

That "voice coming horn something not ourselves, in the existence of which we cannot disbelieve," I am not ordained to hear or to interpret, but it seems to me that it would surely speak in this hour of peril of a Christianity shorn of theological hairsplitting and ritualistic upholstery, free from the first mortgage claims of two-score or more denominations and sects. It would speak of a religion not limited to five hundred million professing Christians, but blessing all peoples of the earth who, even as we, are struggling toward the solution of the final mystery, with a little of the sublime and a great deal of the ridiculous in the creeds and the theologies that we and they have so far been able to draft. We benefit the Devil and no one else when we forget George Bernard Shaw's succinct remark: "There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it." That voice from without ourselves would speak, finally, of Truth made available to all men in order that they might come to see the deep reality of their brotherhood and the shallow superficiality of their differences. Such Truth might be taught as freely in our schools as anything else, and in place of the three R's we might proclaim the four R's: reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic, and religion.

That alone would be an advance tremendous in its implications, for not the least of the evils of the age in which we live is the neglect of youth's capacity for faith. Human beings are not machines, not even German human beings. They won't operate efficiently on fuel and physical attentions alone. Few, if any, human beings can live happily or effectively unless, consciously or unconsciously, they are building a shrine in which, item by item, they collect and cherish the ideas and ideals in which they have faith. The totalitarian dictators have been astute enough to realize this and to provide for their youth something to believe in, some object of faith. If youth can't find a legitimate object with which to fill its capacity for faith, it will listen to the promises of political messiahs, or to quack medicine salesmen, or to the leaders of exotic cults.

it is of prime importance, then, that the message of religion, the immortal values of Christianity, and the codes of ethics and morals which are associated with them, should not be lost to our American youth. They can be saved only by a new testament which presents the fundamentals of spiritual belief, free of dogma, and in no important aspect running counter to the scientific knowledge that youth has acquired elsewhere, but, rather, lighting with transcendent significance an otherwise meaningless array of facts concerning man, nature, and the cosmos. You may remember that when the Apostles set out to spread the gospel of Christ, following his resurrection, their first mass conversion came to pass through a miracle that enabled them to speak to all nationalities simultaneously in many tongues. The listeners were convinced and converted because they were able to hear the Apostles in their native languages.

If youth is to be likewise convinced and converted in the present day and age, those who are the heirs of the Apostles must learn to speak youth's language and to convey the essentials of spiritual thought in a way which is both intelligible and acceptable to youth. The most common and persistent motive leading to the study of philosophy in the University of California (other than credit accumulation), I have found, is the imperious need of youth for an understanding of life that will accord with reasonable beliefs about the nature of things—a demand which traditional religious institutions and ideas seem no longer able to supply, at least for the many. The basis of this need is, I believe, the natural piety of man. As some philosopher has said, "this feeling of wonder and gratitude towards the sources of our well-being denotes a significant quality in our human manner of living. It is prior to and, in an important sense, deeper than any organized historical religion or any metaphysical view of the world. Adding a new dimension and a new significance to human achievement and aspiration, it lends an imaginative and poetic quality to experience. . . . Without natural piety, there would be no religion, as a permanent and significant expression of experience."

Natural piety is not an attribute of man which is created artificially. It may be broadened and deepened by the pastor, the priest, or the professor, but it exists in all men to a greater or lesser degree, regardless of training. It is not merely a faculty of the human mind and spirit; it is an appetite of the mind and spirit. It must be satisfied in one way or another, if only by the intoxicating and distorting experience of revivalism or iconoclasm. When we express fear that democracy has grown soft, that its morale has disintegrated, that its unity of thought and action, its esprit de corps are no more, we are speaking again of the malnutrition of natural piety, or the neglect of the human capacity for faith. If we neglect to meet this need, this capacity, through divine revelation supplemented by the highest teachings of the present and past, men will grasp at the first crust that is thrown their way, even though it comes from the hand of a dictator and though they must surrender their liberty to get it.

And so I have come with much labor to my point, which is that the fundamental tenets of faith in democracy and of faith in a merciful God are complementary and supplementary each to the other. Our Anglo-American political philosophy is founded on the religious concept of the soundness of the individual which every form of collectivism must deny. I am convinced, therefore, that our American heritage cannot for long exist without a firmly grounded religious faith, for the very same qualities which religion stresses—self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, willingness to give one's time and effort without hope of material reward, scrupulous regard for the rights of others—are every one essential for the maintenance of representative democracy. As Dorothy Thompson has said, "The conception of man as the child of God—a soul capable of reason, capable of developing and perfecting himself in the image of the ideal—this . . . is the only philosophical justification of democracy."

Our time needs above all else people who feel that they have a rendezvous with life which must be kept; who identify themselves with the hopes and struggles of their fellowmen; who endeavor to live not for self alone but with a helping hand toward all their brothers. About us everywhere today we find the triumph and the sorrow that come through the contrary teaching that men are the products of economic or biological determinism, and that the forces that have made them can as easily destroy them. This is a philosophy most congenial to dictators. It flourishes not only where men are regarded merely as fodder for future wars or as cogs in atotalitarian machine, but also everywhere that men exploit other men for their own advantage. The world will not be fit for human habitation until it has become as a "city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God," or, if you prefer less mystic language, until its people have developed those inner qualities of mind and spirit that produce great living. As William James said: "For my part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheism and fears."