Project Canterbury

The Church and the Hour
Reflection of a Socialist Churchwoman

By Vida D. Scudder, A.M.

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1917.

IV. Why Does Not the Church Turn Socialist?

A PERTINENT question! For according to the Church's formulae one would have expected it to turn Socialist long ago. Wasn't it started Socialist? Did not its founder assert with vigor that an abundance of private possessions was bad and dangerous for a man? Did He not by deliberate choice announce His Good News to the poor, and establish principles that would make it impossible for any honest follower to fight for his own advantage, or to possess while other men lacked? Did He not go about proclaiming a revolutionary social order which He called the Kingdom of Heaven, and does not clear thinking show that socialism is the only economic basis which would ever give this ideal of His a thorough and fair chance? Finally, because He would not give up his convictions or change His methods, did not the civil and religious authorities, with just instinct from their point of view, execute Him as a revolutionist and agitator?

Well, then! Why has his Church not turned out a revolutionary and Socialist body?

Your glib answer is ready to the question.

The Church is one thing, you say with a shrug: Jesus is quite another.

The Church does not turn Socialist because it is false to its Master; because ever since the time of Constantine it has flouted His ideas, misused His name, and has in these latter days at least, whatever may have been true earlier, become a stronghold of enmity to the people, and to the cause for which He died.

There is some force to this answer; but it is altogether too facile. Nothing in the world is so simple as all that. True, it does certainly look as if the Church might crucify Jesus all over again, did He appear among us. And we have to confess that it has crucified Him over and over, down the last two thousand years. Nevertheless, it still bears His name and includes many of His sincere followers.

The situation demands that we probe deeper.

And the moment we do so we see that there is no use in pummeling the Church as if it were a person. Dealing the ecclesiastical world "slaps and slams" in the elegant phrase of a socialist contemporary is an easy and stimulating exercise, but a silly one; for there is really nothing around to be hit. The Church is an extremely complex proposition.

Seek for it with your sociological spy-glass, and it evades you. Which Church? Where? For the purposes of the present discussion, the Church cannot be considered as one corporate being endowed with independent life. Neither can it be identified with its leaders or official spokesmen, be they bishops or just plain ministers or even vestrymen and deacons. The Church is a vast association of baptized persons, presenting immense variety in outlook, attitude, and creed, held together by a force somewhat difficult to define.

This association has been in existence a long while and has lived through many social orders. It gets its color from these orders but it has never been identical with any of them; in one way it has nothing to do with politics or sociology. It cannot officially turn socialist as a corporate body, any more than it could turn imperialist under the Roman Empire, or feudal under feudalism, or capitalistic under capitalism.

Partisanship in politics or economics is as much out of its corporate province as partisanship on these lines would be to a botanical association or a football team. The only way in which this association can turn Socialist is for the majority of the individuals composing it to turn Socialist; and this is what we really are watching for and are surprised not to see.

Now, the force that unites these individuals in the vital Church, the working Church, is the belief that they have something precious to guard. Brotherhood? Yes; but something also deeper and more sacred than brotherhood.

You may think that there is nothing deeper or more sacred. You may hold that brotherhood is the essence of religion, and all there is to it. You have a right to your opinion; but that is where good Christians, not to speak of good Buddhists, and Jews, and Mohammedans and Bahaists, differ from you. This most precious thing which the Church exists to guard is the fellowship of finite and transitory man with Infinite and Uncreated Love.

Mystical delusion you say? Very well, though it seems somewhat unscientific to dismiss lightly with an impatient phrase an experience which has been from the dawn of time the central passion and the supreme desire, a sustaining power, a consolation, and a light, to unnumbered throngs of every continent and every tongue. Pure religious aspiration is intangible, but it is mighty. From land to land, from age to age, it may change its formulae, but it never abandons its essence. And those who know can tell us that it never was more profoundly operative than today.

However, we are expounding just now--not attacking, or defending. And we hasten to add, for the benefit of the practically disposed, that this insistent craving for fellowship with the unseen is not the only factor in the bond that unites Church and people. It carries with it of necessity a further emphasis. For in the Church it is held that such fellowship can be attained only through growth in holiness.

Now, holiness is only another word for character raised to its highest possibilities.

It means in each individual a triumph of the higher nature over the lower, triumph won by fierce and endless moral struggle, of which the seat is the individual heart. The achievement of such triumph on the part of as many individuals as possible is the one matter of importance in the world. Hopelessly individualistic, you perceive. Still, the race does happen to be made up of individuals.

Even to appraise the value of an economic scheme, you have to get back to your individual every time. At all events, character is the word of the Church--involving on the lower levels morality or faithfulness to the law of right; on the higher levels, holiness, or unity with the law of love; and always implying the possibility, clouded, dim, yet infinitely precious, of fellowship with what, lies beyond the world of sense.

The Church perceives or thinks she does that these things can be and are attained under all conceivable variety of economic circumstance; and therefore she is inclined not to care a rap whether people are rich or poor and whether they live in comfort or discomfort.

Even with the ethical stress, this whole scheme of things is foolishness to those moderns, if such there be, who hold that good housing conditions and adequate reward for every man are the omega as well as the alpha of human needs; also to those others, indubitably numerous, who are convinced that the study of natural law, with the pursuit of "arts yet unimagined yet to be" is going to satisfy the hunger for a vision of Truth beyond the edge of the world.

But these moderns must realize how ardently the people who fill the churches believe the other way. All church folk to whom religion is a reality speak a language of their own. They are sure that they, with any others who recognize the human need for that great fellowship with the Unseen God, alone "inhabit reality," to use James's admirable phrase. And the reason they do not turn socialist is their fear that socialism, especially as it is currently presented, threatens the power to achieve such fellowship.

They do not feel that people if released from economic bondage will be any more likely to become heirs to the old title, "Friends of God." They are full of terror lest a concentration of the public mind on the goods of the flesh should blind it to the goods of the Spirit; lest socialism should persuade men to a lazy idea that the race will be made good by rote when the socialist state arrives, and that meanwhile we fulfill our whole duty if we agitate for this state, relaxing all stress on the ancient tussle for individual self-restraint and goodness.

The religious world, so far as it holds aloof from socialism, inclines to one of two attitudes. Either it thinks that socialism offers a low substitute for religion, mere wheat bread for the Bread of Life, in which case it regards socialism as an enemy; or else it thinks as we were saying that economic circumstance bears no relation to character, in which case it regards socialism as irrelevant.

How full we are of answers--we Christians who happen to be socialists! The present writer has recently written a whole book to prove to her fellow-Christians how wrong they are. We are in a hurry to say that the Food of Immortality can be sacramentally conveyed only through common bread and wine; that in the blessed oneness of being, soul helps flesh "no more than flesh helps soul," so that our plain business is to make the flesh of all men healthful and wholesome; and we point with horror to the Satanic forces of Disease and Apathy brooding sinister over factory and slum.

I am afraid that we socialist Christians enjoy hearing St. James say to the capitalists, especially those who fill the churches: Go to now, weep and howl! Certainly we hold with John that if a man does not love his brother whom he has seen he is not likely to love God whom he has not seen; and just as we perceive (what many good people curiously fail to) that the brotherhood of man implies Fatherhood--somewhere--so we see that a universal Fatherhood implies a brotherhood not of our seeking but of divine ordaining.

Probably a majority of people in the churches now get as far as this. There is a quite general loathing of self-centered spirituality to-day and a strong reaction from nursing our own souls while babies are making artificial flowers. And a significant minority gets further. It sees that socialism is the only effective way at this stage of social evolution of practicing human fellowship, and so reaching fellowship with God.

This minority in the Church is very firm in its conviction. It is quite sure that faith in Dante's "Love that moves the sun and the other stars" is in the long run the only asset that separates man from brute; but it is also equally sure that socialism will prove favorable to the full expansion of such faith and that the socialist reorganization of society is the only way to give the endless struggle for the perfecting of individual character, which is the condition of spiritual vision, any kind of a fair show.

We try our best to show this to all our fellow-Christians. But still they hesitate. Still they tell us that there is danger lest the precious things attained by blood and tears and anguish be all thrown away, lest moral freedom be abolished by our system, and the race sink back into a dreary vulgarity, a kind of ethical Philistinism, with no romance of the spirit, no fine heroisms, no more quest for the light that glimmers at the horizon's verge.

Their fears sound plausible. We must do justice to their honesty: to that jealous, serious passion for moral and spiritual values which is in great part the source of the difficulty felt by religious people in accepting Socialism.

We of the minority can hardly refrain from retorting, however, that if economic comfort be a dangerous condition, or an irrelevant one, it is strange that church members should for the most part cling to it so tenaciously--and possess so very large a share of it, compared with the babies making artificial flowers.

Honest church people have an interesting answer ready. They have to grant us something, and they point to St. Francis, or to his theories, and tell us that we are right in a degree, but that the way out is not to press socialism but to persuade them and their like to a voluntary sacrifice of their possessions.

Now there is a great deal to be said about this answer which cannot be said to-day. But it certainly does sound just a little academic and Utopian--and the babies continue to starve. Meantime it points us to other factors in the situation less noble than those we have been considering, yet important to keep in mind if we are looking for a straight answer to our question.

The Church has that inward life on which we have been dwelling. But it has an outward life also. And this outward life is largely dependent on the offerings of the well-to-do classes. It is certainly a far cry from Fifth Avenue ecclesiastical architecture to the shores of the Lake of Galilee; yet by natural process of growth, Fifth Avenue Church edifices have appeared.

The Church is an institution maintaining buildings and officials and an enormous quantity of charitable work, excellently well meant, however shortsighted. Now the inward life is by far the deeper and more important. It is what holds the whole thing together. Were it conceivable that the craving for union with God should cease in the hearts of men, the Church would vanish within a generation. All the handsome church buildings, the vested choirs, the eloquent preachers, the full congregations, would "like the cloudy fabric of a vision leave not a rack behind," if once the race lost sight of that faint gleam--on the clouds is it? Or shining from a land very far off, beyond the confines of sense? But so long as that craving endures, churches will be built,--and perhaps the building of them will always hurt and hamper the freedom of the exploring mind.

The paradox of the situation reacts painfully on the hearts of church people, especially of officials. How can they imperil their hold on the community which supports the Church and all its works, by joining forces with those who would menace the very basis on which that community rests? It is not in most cases a crude question with clergymen of retaining their jobs, though this consideration has to come in; it is rather a question of the enterprises which they father. And there are many drawn to the Socialist faith who, for one or the other reason, do not dare to join us.

At least three clergymen of good standing in their respective communions have avowed this to the writer within the year. "Wait till I educate my children," said one. "I do not wish to lose the power for good, and indirectly for socialism, which I now exert through an academic chair," said the second. "You see," sighed the third, "we carry on schools, and if I were to join the socialist party, those schools would be ruined."

Lamentable enough. Yet even in these cases the reasons for hesitation were not wholly ignoble. Mere counsels of prudence and timidity would never have prevailed with these honest and devoted men.

Further conversation revealed the strong feeling in all of them,--and it is a feeling very wide-spread,--that while socialism was doubtless the true economic doctrine, the socialist movement in America was too materialistic, autocratic, and quarrelsome for churchmen to join without endorsing a spirit which they were bound to disapprove. The confusion of motive was very bad for them, and for us.

What to do about the situation? Well, we are not concerned to-day with answers,--and my space is gone.

One trouble is that Nature expects us to be enthusiastic about a number of things at once, and we all find it hard to obey. We cannot respond to the amplitude of her demands.

We do not manage half as well as Humpty Dumpty in Alice, who had trained himself to believe as many as ten impossible things before breakfast; we can hardly ever believe more than one at a time. Nature herself does many things all at once, but when she desires to get a piece of work done by men, says Emerson somewhere, she evolves a type of people who feel that the achievement of that one end is the only thing which matters in the universe.

So orthodox church people, believing intensely that the growth of the soul is the only important thing, find it hard not to distrust the socialists, who so hate cant about the soul that they never mention the organ. Orthodox socialists meanwhile, thinking it supremely important that babies should not make artificial flowers, find it hard not to be a little contemptuous of people who stay aloof from the great modern struggle for economic freedom.

Yet there is no logical reason why socialists should not care for spiritual values, and religious people care for social justice. There is every reason why they should, for the indications are that Nature has both at heart, and that neither cause can in the long run flourish without the other. Perhaps socialists and Christians alike will learn this some day. So far as the Church is concerned, there is always that strong and growing minority. Give us time.

In England, they say that the advance of socialism depends largely on the church vote. Ten more years here in the United States, and who knows what may happen? Especially if socialists should get more in the habit of acknowledging that the soul is of importance.

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