WHEN HALF-GOD GO

 

By

REV. ELIZABETH PADGHAM

 

Delivered

 

May Memorial Church

 

Syracuse, New York

 

December, 1929

 

"Heartily know

When half-gods go

The gods arrive."--Emerson.

 

LAST Sunday after service I was surprised that not one of you challenged my repetition of the statement that the very foundation of the full, strong, rich life is faith in God. I had fully expected that some of you would question me as to my meaning in the use of the word "God." Perhaps it is your courteous habit not to question a guest minister. I suspect, however, that some of the younger minds at least went away thinking, "She's a conservative back number."

 

As I look at it, the sermon has a work of its own it should aim to do. It is not the culminating peak of our church worship. This, to my mind, is the place of the prayer. The sermon should aim to uplift our thoughts and minds, it should direct us to the higher life, but it should also energize us in thought, directing us toward clearer thinking, at any rate to have a clearer idea as to what we as individuals do think. While the sermon should not antagonize the listeners, it has accomplished little if it gains only a passive acceptance of the ideas of the preacher. The sermon should quicken minds as well as hearts and souls. Men may differ from every thought that the minister has expressed and yet be mightily helped, yes, be even saved from the sluggish, enervating slough of existence. A preacher can give only his own ideas, his own experiences. These may well differ from the ideas and experiences or those others who listen. Progress is made when another's ideas sting us to search our ways. What do I believe? What do I think about it? In speaking of the value of thought, a student in a philosophy class the other morning objected to so much emphasis being placed on thinking; he wanted more passion in doing. We surely need that, we need more passion in our acts, but what we think makes a tremendous difference in our reactions to the world about us.

 

In this day, shocking as the thought is to many, it is nevertheless a fad: that a minister feels challenged when he uses the word "God." Why should this be so ? Because so many are denying God. Men in all walks of life deny that they any longer believe in God. Men have always denied. The question at present is more acute because leaders in our churches are frankly voicing their denials and yet staying in the churches, preaching from the pulpits. The religious world is vibrant with the discussion, "Do you believe in God?" although it is guised under the phraseology, "Are you a humanist?"

 

The business man absorbed in the problems of his particular work, the woman whose day is not long enough to attend to the demands made upon her, may well wonder what it is all about. Some one says, "Men are denying God these days. The atheists are growing in numbers. The work of the churches is finished for no one wants to go to church anymore." The busy men and women hear this but they haven't time to look far into the matter. Yet they go back to their several grooves feeling under a cloud of despondency which they do not understand. They know that life presses hard and there seems little hope or buoyant joy in living, that's all.

 

As I said, the world of thought is now full of the question of humanism, and it behooves us of the Unitarian Church particularly to understand what it is all about; to do some clear thinking so that we may know just where we, individually, stand on the question.

 

Are men tending toward atheism at an alarming rate at this time? What causes the fearful to make this assertion against our day? Simply this: men are more and more saying that they do not believe in God. This should not discourage us because, when we ask them to explain we see immediately that they are finding it impossible to believe in God as the traditions explain Him. Well, the prophets did not believe God to be what the Hebrews of Moses' time long before the prophets had believed. Jesus did not uphold the traditions of Moses. That was the quarrel the Pharisees had with Jesus. This great leader emphasized belief in a God quite other than the War Lord of the Old Testament. Jesus was probably considered an atheist in his day; but since that time he has been acclaimed as one who opened up for men a vision of God that has illumined life for them. For it was true then as it is true now that when the half-gods go the gods arrive.

 

If we will but take time to look backwards we shall see what always happened. History shows that as men's knowledge of the world in which they lived progressed so did their idea of God expand and progress. The two kept step with each other. Men through the ages constantly changed their ideas as to what God was. Necessarily once this fact regarding the past is clear to men they must consistently expect that if men are to continue to progress in knowledge of the universe and of life they will continue to grow in knowledge of God. When a larger knowledge proves the inadequacy of the idea we hold we must put it away that the larger idea may grip us.

 

God is revealing Himself all the time in His creations--the universe and the creatures in the universe. Unless man ceases to think, ceases to grow in knowledge, he must learn more and more of God. The only way to prevent this is to shut up his mind entirely. Even then I do not believe he can completely shut God out.

 

So why be shocked when men's ideas of God go on changing? A man here and a man there may very well propose an idea of God that is false, that does not square up with experience. We need feel no alarm. The false will be denied by experience. Truth cannot be overturned by men's ideas. It will help us often through a crisis, when we feel shaken as by an earthquake in our mental life, to keep a firm grip on that thought, that truth, that reality, can withstand any amount of battering. Truth cannot fall. There is but one question, Is man ready to face the truth when he finds it in his seeking? Why be shocked when men propose a new idea of God? Ideas are bound to change if men go on seeking for the knowledge of God and His truth.

 

It isn't the changing ideas of God that are alarming. It is the tenacity with which men fight to hold their half-gods.

 

The Unitarian Church has always sounded as the keynote for tuning our religious thought-life, the clarion call, "Seek earnestly after God! Search without ceasing for the truth." The Unitarian Church believes what John Robinson preached to his little flock before he sent that first band of Pilgrims across the waters to America, ,"God hath yet more of truth to reveal unto men." We, their religious descendants, have gone on seeking for that "more of truth" that is all the time being revealed to thinking minds, to loving hearts, to aspiring souls.

 

All along the way we are perforce brought face to face with the result of our thinking. And men will come to the parting of the ways. Because, if men seek honestly, they will not all see alike, nor will they think alike. Truth is a many sided shield. Men are not all facing the one side. Groups are on all sides and call out to others their different findings.

 

A hundred years and more ago, such difference led to the historic split in the Congregational church which resulted in the two churches, the Trinitarian Congregational and the Unitarian Congregational. In Plymouth, Mass., you see on one street corner the Trinitarian Congregational, and, opposite, the Unitarian Congregational Church. It used to be said that there they stood shaking fists in each other's face in the bitterness of controversy over the trinity or the unity of God. Now, I think that they smile at each other from the warmth of a multiple of common interests and beliefs. Several of our ministers belong to both fellowships. It may not be long before the churches, themselves, merge and become one body.

 

A few years ago the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy threatened to disrupt the orthodox churches. We Unitarians sat on the side lines and cheered ourselves in smug pride because we had settled the question of the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, and similar problems a hundred years before. At the time of this recent controversy I preached a sermon which I had occasion to re-read the other day. I found that in that sermon I had prophesied that in a few years the controversy would swing to the question of the nature of God. That very thing has happened.

 

It has happened, and the Unitarian Church is in the thick of it. This time we cannot sit complacently on the side lines. We must face the question and know where we stand, what we believe. Members, not so many as yet perhaps, but leaders, prominent ministers, have adopted the name of Humanist. They are causing a great deal of confusion by the term. They are enlisting followers many of whom are preaching or upholding what they have heard but have not thought through for themselves. They are breaking hearts of many of their people by their denials and by their omissions in the church services.

 

More and more we shall hear of it, and we ought to know what it is all about. Some of you have asked me what this humanism is. It is impossible to do more than to suggest the principal line of the controversy in this short time.

 

What, then, is happening?

 

These men called Humanists are denying any belief in God. They are omitting prayer from the church services because they do not acknowledge the existence of any God to whom to pray. This whole matter is of vital importance because the leaders who do these things are ministers, the pews consenting, often even applauding. Fortunately to my mind the men who hold these views are the extreme humanists and are not in the majority.

 

Humanism at its best, as I hear and read their chief exponents, is markedly reverent. In the Christian Century of October and November 1929, there were printed discussions aroused by an article on prayer by John Haynes Holmes who there calls himself a humanist. If you read those discussions you will agree, I am sure, that I am not altogether shy the mark when I claim that much of the ado is merely a matter of words. It seems very largely a revolt against the tyranny of words coupled with a serious ignoring of those things that Unitarians believe and have for a long time preached and advocated. The humanists will not agree to this. They claim they are presenting something new. We ask, Where is it? and are not answered. Early in the fall Dr. Charles Potter listed ten points of difference between the Unitarians and the Humanists. One was the omission of the word obey from the marriage service. This is nothing new, as you know. The word obey has been left out of the service by many Unitarian ministers as a matter of course. They never thought of calling the attention of the press to the fact. In my twenty-six years of active ministry, marrying many people in that time. I never once used the word obey. On this question of Dr. Potter's ten points I quote the following from an article in the Christian Register written by a leader in the Ethical Culture movement: "All ten of the points of contrast Dr. Potter has set forth between 'the old religion' and 'the new' have long been commonplaces with the leading representatives of Unitarianism, and have also served to mark the difference between orthodoxy and Unitarianism. Even Channing and Theodore Parker had given expression to Mr. Potter's prophet-dictum: 'The time has come for man to dare to believe in himself, to shake himself free from the shackles of inherited inhibition and taboos, and to make a new faith for a new age. In the challenge to make the world better here and now, we shall find all the incentives and thrills which formerly intrigued the seekers of celestial bliss in the hereafter.' "

 

What's it all about then? What are the humanists doing? They are re-emphasizing that which was the Unitarians main emphasis when they split the Congregational body. It is an emphasis which needs to be stressed and re-emphasized, for we all too soon drop to a level monotone in its regard.

 

It is the emphasis on man, the power of man, the possibilities of man. In the very inception of Unitarianism the root of the difference of their faith from that of the orthodox church lay in their idea of man. The contribution which Unitarians made to the religious thought of that early day was the emphasis they stressed on the goodness of the human being. Over against the doctrine of the depravity of man the Unitarians preached a faith in the divinity of man: over against the theory of the descent of man held by the other churches the Unitarians advanced the theory of the ascent of man. They stressed works over faith when that faith was a profession of belief only. They were mightily interested in this world. They held that religion should fit men to live in this world rather than simply prepare them to live in a heavenly world to which they could go only through the gates of death. Humanism at its best today is re-stressing this faith which the Unitarian church has always had in the divine possibilities of humanity and in the immediate demands of this world upon men. So far I find nothing to separate those of us who are theists, nor to arouse our fears concerning those humanists who remain in the Unitarian churches.

 

In fact, I find that much of the humanist's ammunition is wasted in shooting at men of straw. I am not speaking of the humanist writers. They are interested in the philosophical side. They are concerned with forming definitions often drawn out so fine that there seems little left that is of value to life. It is true that we must think straight. We must strive to think clearly that we may have a sound intellectual background on which to meet and help those who come to us with intellectual doubts. But just now I am much more concerned with the problem that faces us as members of the Unitarian churches. I believe that much sorrow and heartbreak among us need not be at all if we can once grasp the truth that Emerson voiced, "When half-gods go the gods arrive." I speak, then, not of the philosophical humanist writers but of these humanist ministers and speakers who are preaching to us their denials. I feel toward their denials just as I always have toward the denials that used to resound from the Unitarian pulpits. To clear the way for affirmations is enough. A religion based on denials doesn't help anyone very far along the road of the better life. But the humanist is so eloquent in his denials just now that we must consider them a moment.

 

What are they denying? May one say gods of straw? At least half-gods that the liberal Unitarian let go years ago. The liberal wing of the orthodox churches have, for the most part, outgrown the half-gods the humanists are ridiculing. We listen to the humanist when he directs the fire of his eloquence against the War Lord of the Old Testament, or against the white whiskered old man-god of early art, and when he stops for breath we say, "Well, why so excited? We don't believe in such a God either. We put all that behind us long ago. Where have you been that you think Unitarians are controlled in their thinking and praying by such ananthropomorphic God?"

 

A few weeks ago I heard one of the exponents of humanism give the following explanation of the difference between humanists and theists, that is believers in God. 'Here is a family in need. What happens? The humanist hears of them and carries food, coal, clothing to them. The theist, on the other hand, hears of them and goes to church and prays God to help this family, while he, himself, does nothing.' I ask you, what church, orthodox or liberal, is not, and has not been, quick to feed the hungry and help in every material way? Certainly I've known none the many years that I've been interested in church work as a minister. This idea I cannot pass by as a little thing, as the theory of one exponent of humanism only. Just two weeks before the above incident, in Chicago, I heard the very same thing elaborated as the work of the humanists; this carrying of material comfort to the needy in contrast with the churches that do nothing but pray. As a matter of fact many of the theist churches feel that merely to relieve material want is not enough. A living religion that has to do with this life today or this world must do more than this. So they have social programs that are instigating a search into the causes of poverty. They believe that this kind of suffering must be done away with in civilized communities that have a living faith in the brotherhood of man. If the idea of the humanists were to ridicule a passive dependence on prayer that, does not stimulate the prayer to action it might serve the purpose better to call attention, for example, to the inefficacy of prayers for rain. Just now we read in the papers of the numbers of people in California who are finding relief for their worried minds in praying for rain. Here the Unitarian would stand with the humanist in an attitude that has nothing new in it to the liberal who inherited his religious character from an ancestry that braved ostracism for the sake of a religion based on reason.

 

We venture to ask, Why does not the humanist find out what has been done and is being done? Their position would seem inexplicable did we not know how blind to facts an idea can make men. As I see it, many of these men are fighting the old ideas that have clung to them from a conservative orthodoxy. They preach as new the thoughts, the theology, that those of us born in the Unitarian church have been taught since our childhood. Why? What is the motive? I think it is a splendid longing that motivates the best of our humanists. It is not a delight in destruction, in tearing down the half-gods, smashing them from their pedestals. These humanists are urged on by an honest desire to help men live and be better, finer men, here and now. They believe that the old theology, the old idea of God, really hinders men, holds them in a subjection to a false idea that cramps their progress, their own becoming. The humanist says we can believe only that which we can see and prove, only that which lies in human experience. All we know is man, is our self, and what comes in contact with that self in experience. He is right. How can you or I know anything but that which we learn in our own experience? We can't. The humanist is absolutely right. But here is the very point of departure. What do we meet in our experience? What does my experience teach me? The humanist would say in a general way, "Man is all we know. We know only the self. Man accounts for all because he is all we know." That is side stepping. Man, the self, may be all that we know but why assume that we know everything? I said the humanist makes these statements in a general way.

 

When you pin him down to details he admits another philosophy. The principal foundation stone of his belief as I understand him, carries him beyond this statement. For he believes in the growth of man, he believes that man will grow. Why, therefore, must we ward which man is tending, which give glow to the light toward which and to which the humanist directs the thoughts of his communion, these prove that he believes that man an will grow. Why therefore, must we not assume that man will grow in knowledge, a knowledge which may be quite other than that about which he is now so dogmatic? For your humanist is a dogmatist.

 

I well remember that years before the name humanist was even whispered among us, a minister at a conference preached of the "becoming God." He told us that God is the spirit of humanity which is developing toward perfection but is not perfect; that that becoming-spirit in man is all the God there is. That is the humanist position today, but then it was new to us who were just beginning our ministry. The next morning I talked with one of the men who is now minister of one of our largest churches. He was much perturbed over the sermon of the night before. He said he had not been able to sleep so puzzled had he been over this "becoming God." At first, he said, he had thought, "Here is God lying on this bed." It was laughable. Then the terrifying thought came to him, "If this be true there can be no greater power than man to turn to for help in time of need." The loneliness of man overwhelmed him and the world seemed desolate.

 

Here is our question then. Need we be overwhelmed because we know nothing but what we learn in our experience? Nothing but man, nothing but the God spirit in man progressing as man progresses? Nothing but man, answers the humanist. Must we believe it too? Look into your own life. What, irrespective of humanist or theist, does experience teach you? I cannot explain your experience, but my experience brings me into contact with much for which man is not and cannot be responsible. I find much in the universe that is a very real part of my living experience, I find much that is real in myself, that man did not create, that the being of man cannot explain. The humanist has to acknowledge this too. At a Religious Education conference a humanist curriculum was explained to us. The aim was to teach children to reverence man and the self. To further this aim the courses dealt with evolution, the ascent of man. The lessons started with the amoeba. Naturally the question was raised by the children, What came before the amoeba? What made the amoeba? Such questions sound very familiar to theists who are used to being questioned. Who made God? We were told that the humanist teacher answered the above questions by saying that before the amoeba there is a mystery which no one knows.

 

Well, I a theist, call that mystery the Source of All Life, the Creator of Life, although I don't like "Creator" as well for I think God did not make life as something other than Himself. Rather He gave of Himself. I call this mystery God. Why not? One humanist answered me by saying that men would misunderstand him if he used the word God. That they would think that he meant all the old content of the word God that the Old Testament writers put in the word Jehovah, or the Calvinist into the stern God-Judge. I replied that a man creates a greater misunderstanding by saying that he does not believe in God at all. For the content of the word has expanded with the searching of earnest, truth-seeking minds. Men know that all the time the half-gods must go if men would have the gods arrive; that half-truths must make way for the fuller knowledge of truth. Our language is still too poor to produce a word that carries a true idea to others of what we hold in mind when we say God.

 

God stands for the sum of the highest ideals in each particular age; the ideal that men are striving to be like. God, the word God, stands for the Reality behind all seeming; the Unity which gathers up into itself all the broken fragments of truth our experiences have brought us to see and know. If only we could understand that, and then go on with the interesting intellectual game of defining God, but never substituting for God the definition of the word. A definition never stirred men's heart. It is the Reality we have contacts with that helps us to be bigger men. However we define it, there is a Reality which we experience. And that experience must go deeper down than just in our minds if we are to grow in knowledge of the Reality of God. When I say "God" don't you immediately understand that I am speaking of the highest power that makes for goodness, for rightness, that I know? You may know more of that power than I because of your experience with that power, but you know that I am speaking of the best and highest of which I can conceive. With the humanist I hold that it is the power of life within me. Why not? As a child I heard Dr. Calthrop again and again say from this pulpit, "Open up your lungs and breathe in God." That was illuminating to me as a young girl. No humanist, today, can be more daring in terms of God than that.

 

Beyond the humanist,--for I claim that experience goes beyond the province the humanist claims--beyond the humanist I hold God is the power without man that holds the stars in the galaxy, that covers this earth of ours with its garment of loveliness; the power in all things good and true and beautiful; the power that does things man cannot do, things that just wouldn't be in our world-experience if man were all. God, the Creator as man, great though he is, has never been and never can be. Look around you and see the things in the universe, in our world round about us, that man has had nothing to do with. Where did these things come from? Something cannot be made out of nothing. Science in all its phases teaches us that. My religion must in so far stand by science. Religious truth and scientific truth must go hand in hand as far as they go on the same road. When religion goes ahead, as go she must, she still advances by the same scientific method. These things man cannot create, life, love, truth, purity, the characteristics of the soul-life, the things of the spirit,--where did these things come from? Call it "mystery" if you like. I think God does not care by what name we call Him so we live in Him. I see it as the Infinite Source of all being. There must be a source from which these things spring. To me the Infinite Source of Life and Love is God. You cannot give what you havenít got; God cannot give what He hasn't got. He has nothing but Himself out of which to give all these things since He is all in all. So, according to inevitable logic, since you and I find love and goodness and purity and justice in human living we must believe that they are part and parcel of the Infinite Source from which we came. In that belief, to that extent, I believe in a personal God. Not a God shaped like man, but a spiritual Being whose spirit and life I share. Without such a source I cannot account for that which my experience teaches me.

 

And so I, too, end in a great Mystery, you say? Shall I deny God, say I do not believe in God because I don't know Him, because I can't prove Him with mathematical certainty to you? Shall I say I don't know God because I can know only that which I experience? I cannot say that for this reason. Because I can meet God in experience just as actually as I come in contact with anything in my experiences. I don't know you. I can't prove you, the real you. I know only the revelation of you as you move your body, express yourself in and through your body. When you leave your body I shall not be able to see nor touch that which has gone. I shall only know that the real you I loved has left its body. Yet neither you nor I doubt the existence of you. So I know God as He reveals Himself in you and in the universe. I experience Him there just as really as I experience you.

 

Again,--and here is the greater experience that makes the glory of the vision of becoming humanity--I can meet God in my own self. There I commune with Him as I can rarely commune with you my human brother. In the deeps of my spiritual being there God and my soul meet and traffic in spiritual things. Why do men say that what I see with my eyes, hear with my ears, is real experience and what I learn through the experience of the soul is not real? Who dares deny reality to that which enters deep into a man's life and there comes to grips with all that is low and mean and sordid in him and sets the better self free to make its own all that is fine and noble and brave and true? Millions of lives can testify to the reality of that experience. They laugh at any other man's denial that it is real. They have met God in their life experience. They have responded to the spark of divinity alight in their souls. They are on fire with the passion to know more and more of truth;.- to experience more and more of God. They would take us with them to seek God if we will leave our half-gods, but they will not wait with us. They feel the pull of God and they are all eager to march onward facing the Light.

 

I believe the humanist with his strong emphasis will make a contribution to the religious life of to-day. I hope that the theists will come out of their troubled silence, and instead of fighting the humanist, will place an equally insistent emphasis on the belief in the living God, a God who is not of the long ago, born of the childish thought of a people in its childhood, but God who is always ahead of the growing knowledge of man who is seeking to know the truth of this universe in which he finds not only himself but God.

_________________________

 

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