NEITHER MERE MORALITY NOR MERE GOD
by James Luther Adams
Originally published in 1951 as an introduction to one of the UUCF journals and brought back to our attention by Rev. Roger Butts from High Plains Church Unitarian Universalist.
The late Dean William W. Fenn of Harvard Divinity School used to tell of a snatch of heated conversation between two students he once overheard as he passed through the corridor of Andover Hall at the Divinity School. Attempting to bring an argument to a triumphant conclusion, the one student said, “All you have is mere morality.” To this the other student replied scornfully, “And all you have is mere God.”
These two epithets, “mere morality” and “mere God,” adumbrate two aspects of the religious mentality which, as each of the students from his perspective implied, should never be allowed to stand in simple opposition or separation. These epithets are of course little more than polemical weapons; but they do point to a fundamental and perennial question, that of the relation between fact and value. Are the high values that elicit human commitment merely human, or are they more than human in their rootage and sanction?
The British philosopher F.H. Bradley once commented on Matthew Arnold’s claim that ‘religion is morality touched with emotion.’ In fairness to Arnold it should be recalled that he went beyond this definition in his description of God as “the power not ourselves working for righteousness.” But here is Bradley’s comment on the definition of religion just cited:
“Is there a God?” asks the reader.” “O, yes,” replies Mr. Arnold, “and I can verify him in experience.” “And what is he then?” cries the reader. “Be virtuous and as a rule you will be happy,” is the answer. “Well, and God?” “That is God,” says Mr. Arnold, “there is no deception and what more do you want?”
Then Mr. Bradley goes on:
I suppose we do want a good deal more. Most of us, certainly the public which Mr. Arnold addressed, want something they can worship; and they will not find that in an hypostatized copy-book heading, which is not much more adorable than “Honesty is the best policy,” or “Handsome is that handsome does,” or various other edifying maxims which have not yet come to an apotheosis.
Religious commitment issues from the declarative into the imperative mood, from recognition of the Fact that defines and redefines and sustains virtue. This is the sense of Baron Friedrich von Hugel’s assertion that “religion has primarily to do with is-ness and only secondarily to do with ought-ness.”
This pointing beyond “ought-ness” to “is-ness” is characteristic not only of religion. Science is also concerned in the first instance with fact. Scientists as such are not primarily interested in the social change for good which their scientific discoveries will make possible. That interest belongs to the applied sciences. Scientists are primarily concerned to know the truth about the world as they find it, and they are not as scientists primarily concerned with what they ought to do with or about it. Religion and science in their differing ways seek reliable fact.
Accordingly, religious faith is a response to that which is held to be ultimately reliable. Christian faith finds the ultimately reliable fact in the meaning-giving, sustaining, fellowship-creating, transforming power to which Jesus of Nazareth responded and which is available (“near at hand”) in the Reign of God. This “object” of faith is neither “mere morality” not “mere God” if they are viewed as opposite or separate. It is just because of this that Dean Fenn was fond of telling his story.
Christianity is not “morality touched with emotion.” Nor is it, strictly speaking, a mystical religion. It is a prophetic, that is, a historical religion; it summons men and women to an encounter with, a response to, a living God, the Lord of history, who has ‘spoken and speaks’ to and in history; it points to an initiative that is not of human making and to a response that is concrete and incarnational in the perennial struggle against the forces of evil in humanity and in history. Its mode is existential more than it is discursively argumentative. We should dwell for a moment here on the prophetic sense of urgency with respect to this demand for the concrete.
In a recent poll at Harvard College a substantial proportion of undergraduates, according to the Harvard Crimson, “presented a God whose substance is so tenuous and vague that, like certain very rare gases, it becomes highly enigmatic to say that He is ‘there’ at all. Such a being certainly seems incapable of having much more of an effect on human life than the normal inhalation of argon.” This kind of God is no longer a concrete presence. It is the dead end of the alley of pale abstraction. Actually, however, the abstractionist conception of God can point to a noble, if erstwhile forgotten, heritage. Rational clarity and consistency again and again, in the very name of a God of order, must enter the scene in order to correct the arbitrariness, the naïve anthropomorphism, the superstitions, of “faith.” On the other hand, this rational thrust can create the vacuum that the writer in The Crimson describes. Arguments about the existence of God can end up here. But the vacuum of abstractionism generally does not last. It gets filled with half-gods. Some concrete, commanding power such as the nation, the white pigment, or the flesh pots of suburbia, will project and occupy a throne. A new superstition becomes the subject of faith. Thus humans show themselves to be incurably, and even self-destructively, “religious.”
One can observe in the history of the ancient Hebrew religion this oscillation between devotion to a distant, if universal, God and the demand for something more immediate and concrete. The German philosopher Schelling, recognizing this oscillation in the history of religions, called for a transcending of the universality of abstract monotheism and the idolatrous concreteness of polytheism. He found in the New Testament. Martin Buber has frequently commented on the viability and power that the Christian conception of God enjoys by virtue of the centrality of Jesus in Christian devotion.
The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making. To say this is only to say that the truly reliable God is the Lord of history and also that our sins will find us out. Yet, this Lord of history has given us a world in which the possibility of new beginnings is ever present along with the judgment that is always upon us. To this Lord of history Jesus responded with his message and demonstration of hope in concert with sacrifice.