Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Our heritage of religious freedom

The Rodda Project: The Special Importance of our Heritage of Religious Freedom

General Assembly Meeting
Church Service Bureau

May 11, 1976

In this Bicentennial Year it is important, I think, for all citizens to stop for a moment and reflect about its significance. As I have done so, I have been impressed with the fact that the colonial struggle for independence from England not only created a new nation, constituted as a federal union which acknowledged the independence of the member states, but also incorporated into the Constitution the basic principle of the separation of church and state and a guarantee of the religious freedom of the individual. As the Constitution of the nation has developed, this concept has been more completely fashioned into the character of American life until today it has become one of the most unique qualities of our society and to the founding fathers we owe, therefore, a significant debt of gratitude. Those of us who cherish freedom of religious conscience should appreciate the significance of this heritage and struggle to preserve it.

Perhaps, one of the aspects of the history of western civilization which has most impressed me, as a student of history, has been the tendency of people to utilize the secular power of the state to establish the supremacy of their particular interpretation of the meaning of God and of their particular religious faith or theology. Because this struggle has been so characteristic of world history, it has significantly impressed thoughtful scholars, and most of those who have applied rational thinking to that experience have generally concluded that freedom of religious thought is extremely important.

Voltaire, an 18th century French Deist, who experienced religious persecution in France and fled to England, where he resided for a short period of time, fully recognized the importance of this concept to both the individual and society. His experience prompted him to observe in his Philosophical Letters, No. VI:

“If there were just one religion in England, despotism would threaten; if there were two religions, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty religions and they live together happily.”
We today can continue to learn from that observation and also from the study of our own history and that of world civilization. But we will learn only if our study enables us to accept the concept of cooperation among different religious faiths and within those faiths, predicating that spirit of cooperation and acceptance upon the admission or recognition that all of the great religions have much in common.

I can recall reading, for example, that Socrates charged his fellow Athenians in the 5th century B.C. to take care of their souls and to cultivate their minds and their sense of morality so that they might see and appreciate what was good and to direct their whole lives in accordance with the ideal of goodness. Life, he observed, was not to be nothing more than a cog in a machine, but it was to achieve good and the proper care of the soul, which meant the exercise of self-control, the attainment of moral autonomy, and individual emancipation from physical and external circumstances. Socrates was convinced that the most important knowledge was that which was concerned with those ends of life which were moral, and that when a man fulfilled supremely the commands of moral knowledge, he was doing more than that, he was acting divinely, acting as a god should act. In effect, Socrates exalted many of the ethical values that are identified with Christianity—temperance, justice, courage, nobility and truth.

The spiritual quality of this thought prompted Erasmus, two thousand years later, in a moment of religious fervor, to exclaim, “Pray for us, St. Socrates.”

And while Socrates, the Athenian stoic, was reaching such a conclusion, the Jewish people were bringing into existence, Judaism, the world's first monotheistic religion which has survived into contemporary times. It was a religion in which God, the creator, was conceived as both righteous and merciful. David Flusser, a well-known Jewish scholar in an essay entitled “Jesus in the Context of History,” argues convincingly that during the life of Jesus the essential message of the Mosaic Law was well established to be that one should love one's neighbor. It was a commandment to the Jewish people which was in complete accord with the principal admonition of Jesus when he observed in Matthew 7:12, that “whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so unto them. For this is the law of the Prophets."

The reason for this observation is briefly to indicate that the basic value of Christianity is to be found also in the teachings of Judaism. In a substantive way, of course, Christianity departed from the essential ideas of Judaism, since the Christian view of Jesus Christ as God was not and is not acceptable to the Jewish people. The Judaic and Christian churches interpret the nature of God differently, but they agree on the significance of the existence of God and of God's spiritual message to mankind.

Perhaps, this sharing of an essential value is becoming more clearly appreciated by Christians and by those who are of the Judaic faith, and it is important that this understanding become more widespread.

As I make this observation, I am prompted to recall the circumstances which developed as a consequence of my nomination of a Buddhist to be Chaplain of the Senate. Immediately thereafter I began receiving controversial correspondence which reflected a strong determination on the part of some Christians to force the Senate to remove the Chaplain, Rev. Shoko Masunaga, and to replace him with a Christian.

Incidentally, I was distressed to discover that some of those who advocated this course of action would not accept as the Senate Chaplain, a Rabbi, a minister of the Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, or Mormon churches. They were very determined that the Chaplain should be a clergyman selected only from one of the traditional Christian churches, and not from a non-Christian church or a Christian sect. This fact disturbed me, since I am convinced that if the concept of separation of church and state and the ecumenical spirit are to be meaningful, there must be an opportunity for the expression of the religious values of different sects and religions when the members of the Senate, and others present, convey to God their faith, hopes and aspirations for the betterment of mankind.

Incidentally, before I nominated the Buddhist minister to be Senate Chaplain, I reread some works on the origin and history of Buddhism and encountered an interesting fact of history, which I wish to convey to you. The religion, of course, was founded by Buddha in India in the 6th century, B.C., and gradually its spiritual values were introduced to the Christian world in the form of a Christianized version of the life of Buddha. The effect was to produce in the Christian churches of the 10th century an interesting response. Buddha was canonized as a saint by both the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.

I have mentioned this only to emphasize again that despite the fact that there are significant differences in doctrine among the Buddhist, Christian and Judaic churches, and in the philosophical reasoning of Socrates, there is a common bond and that common bond is found in the similarity between the basic values which are emphasized and which are regarded as essential to man if he is to find meaning in life. And so, what I am saying, I presume, is that when one studies the inspired thinking of sensitive men in different places in the world and at different times in history, one finds that there is agreement with regard to fundamental moral, spiritual and ethical human values. And this, I think, is , significant, and it is a fact which transcends all others which relate to man and his religious experiences and needs.

Today we must realize, of course, that mankind faces a unique and rather desperate situation because of the impact of scientific thought and the emergence of different philosophical perspectives upon man's understanding of himself. Contemporary man is confronted with a new challenge and it is a challenge not only to the Christian but to all believers, to all men who accept the concept of a divine being and the values inspired from that fact, whether, in the thinking of Francis Schaeffer, it is the faith of orthodox Christians, based upon the Scriptures, or whether it is the faith of theistic existentialists, some of whom regard themselves as Christians, who have made the leap to God.

The condition of contemporary man may be described in the words of a number of contemporary scholars, one of whom is R.G. Rookmaker, who commented in his publication, Modern Art and the Death of Culture:

“The world has changed in the last decade. We have seen a crumbling of a culture. Increasingly, we find ourselves living in a world that is post-Christian and even post-humanist, a neo-pagan world which is nihilistic or anarchist or mystic. We cannot now expect people to follow our rules, our insights, or our morals automatically. We shall be more and more pilgrims and strangers in the world.”
Perhaps, the condition of modern man is described even more substantively and dramatically by William Barrett in The Irrational Man in his observations with respect to religion and contemporary society. He observed:

“The decline of religion in modern times means simply that religion is no longer the uncontested center and ruler of man's life, and that the Church is no longer the final and unquestioned home and asylum of his being. The deepest significance of this change does not even appear principally at the purely intellectual level, in loss of belief, though this loss due to the critical inroads of science has been a major historical cause of the decline. The waning of religion is a much more concrete and complex fact than a mere change in conscious outlook; it penetrates the deepest strata of man's psychic evolution—as Nietzsche, almost alone among nineteenth-century philosophers, was to see. Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual's life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual. The loss of the Church was the loss of a whole system of symbols, images, dogmas, and rites which had the psychological validity of immediate experience, and within which hitherto the whole psychic life of Western man had been safely contained. In losing religion, man lost the concrete connection with a transcendent realm of being; he was set free to deal with this world in all its brute objectivity. But he was bound to feel homeless in such a world, which no longer answered the needs of his spirit. A home is the accepted framework which habitually contains our life. To lose one's psychic container is to be cast adrift, to become a wanderer upon the face of the earth. Henceforth, in seeking his own human completeness man would have to do for himself what he once had done for him, unconsciously, by the Church, through the medium of its sacramental life.”
Mankind, observed Barrett, has embraced irrationalism and this new spirit of contemporary man

“... is portrayed by the modern artist who sees man, not as the rational animal in a sense handed down in the west by the Greeks, but as something else. Reality, too, reveals itself to the artist not as the great chain of being, which the tradition of western rationalism had declared intelligible down to its smallest link and its totality, but ... as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end inexplicable. At the limits of reason one comes face to face with an endlessness; and the artist today shows the absurd, the inexplicable, the meaningless, in our daily lives.”
The message is that contemporary man has lost his religious roots, and, interestingly, he appears also to have lost his expectations that reason will provide his life with a rational order and meaningful purpose.

The observations of the historian, Arnold Toynbee, in his work entitled, Experiences, which, in a sense, is an autobiographical commentary, offered, as a critique of the condition of man, a statement of goals which should be considered most seriously by all who possess a religious faith.

Toynbee contended, and I am paraphrasing him, that adherents of each religion have quarreled with the adherents of every other one; and, within the bosom of each religion, the adherents of different sects have quarreled still more bitterly with each other. This factiousness, malice and uncharitableness, Toynbee contended, has brought Western Christianity into disrepute and has significantly contributed to Western man's alienation from his ancestral religion. And yet in contemporary society religions are reappearing on the horizon in a spirit of mutual charity and this change of heart has removed the age old stumbling block. It has opened the way for these religions to perform for human beings those spiritual services which they have always had in their power to perform, if only they had not stultified themselves as they have in the past by exhibitions of spitefulness and intolerance and, thus, justly brought themselves into discredit.

Toynbee further commented, and I quote:

“The historic religions can give a human being the help that he needs for gaining direct touch with the ultimate spiritual reality behind and beyond the phenomenon of the Universe. Along their different paths toward an identical spiritual summit, these religions can give a human being the spiritual power to break out of his servitude to human technology and to human society and to a true spiritual freedom This is the fruit that can be borne by historic religions' recent change of heart. Is this change going to prove permanent or prove to be ephemeral? It all depends upon its being permanent, and at this early stage of the new era we cannot be sure that the change will last. There are, however, at least two good auguries. The change is such a fundamental one—so complete and a new departure—that it is hard to imagine how it could now be reversed; and it is also a new departure that responds to anew need The present threat to human personality is the greatest peril to which mankind has exposed itself at any time so far since our ancestors became human; the threat to the physical survival of the human race is merely an incidental consequence of this spiritual crisis. The higher religion alone can help mankind to save itself from itself by helping it to regain contact with the ultimate spirituality, which is the ground of being and the source of salvation.

The change of heart is the heart of the matter. If this change is truly to be achieved and achievement is going to be permanent, it will bring with it a change of conduct for the better not only in the relations between human beings in the role of adherents to their respective religions, but in all human relations on every plane of activity. The union of hearts is primary. Questions of doctrine and of administration are secondary to this.”
In this connection, I am reminded of a letter I received from a cousin who commented about the conflict which my appointment of a Buddhist to be Senate Chaplain brought into being. She said that I should keep up the good work. Our grandfather, Richard Rodda, who was a Methodist minister, she observed would be proud of my action.

She further commented that she “... asked Grandfather, when she was a young person, why there were so many religions and how one could know which one to select?” Grandfather answered, “My dear, there are many roads to San Francisco. Some are smooth, some are narrow, some are long, some are short, some are rough and hard to travel, but remember one thing and that is that they all eventually lead to San Francisco. The one you choose is, of course, the one you will prefer to travel, but if you truly want to reach San Francisco anyone of them will lead you there in time.”

My cousin commented that she had thought of the observation many times as she worked with people of many different faiths and it was her opinion that what they all truly wanted was to reach San Francisco. She further observed that a niece of hers had a daughter, June, who was a fully ordained Buddhist minister, and she said, “I certainly do not consider her an atheist. Some of her teachings make very good sense to me, a bit more than the teachings of some of those who belong to other churches.” She concluded: “The good ones will travel the road and they will arrive. The rest will fall by the wayside, whatever road they travel.”

The thought with which I wish to end these comments is that one may disagree with the view that there are many roads to San Francisco and one may believe that there is really only one road. The critical issue, however, is, it seems to me, that the state must not determine the route and direct all citizens along that path. Our founding fathers believed this; they reasoned that it should be a matter of individual conscience; so they introduced the concept of religious freedom into the Constitution. We should be grateful; this gratitude we should acknowledge during the Bicentennial Year. Beyond that,all citizens of religious convictions should heed the admonition of Toynbee that “the union of hearts is primary.”

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