A Faith For Today

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 2


NOT a few people today would rule religion out altogether. Religion, they say, is an outworn belief; the only real world is that which we see. Religion is a wrong dependence upon a higher power; the only help we have is in what we can do for ourselves. If we want health, let us turn to the physician; if money, to business; if knowledge, to science; if we have mental troubles, to the psychiatrist. Why, then, religion?

Now, the extraordinary fact is not the decay of religion but its persistence. The forms of religion change, its beliefs, its ways of worship, its organizations; but religion lives on. And the followers of religion include the highest as well as the humblest, the lands of light and leading as well as backward races. The publishers will tell you that the field of religion ranks with the highest in number of books produced and sold. In periods of panic or depression, there are fewer closed churches than bank failures. Religions change, religion persists. The very change suggests that we have in religion not a dead institution but something living and growing, that there is something in the very nature of reality, of man and his world, from which religion springs. What, then, are the roots of religion?


1. Its first root is in man. That is why religion lasts. If it were a mere invention of priests, as some have said, or a mistaken theory about the world and life, or something incidental and insignificant, it would have disappeared long since from the enlightened nations, if not from the whole world. It lives on because there is something deep and abiding in human life to which religion answers. Most human life is lived in two dimensions, a man's self and his world, the world including both things and men. Religion is life in three dimensions: a man's self, his world, and God. But the important point is not that we add belief in God to the other two, but, rather, that the third dimension changes a man's whole world. Religion can rightly say: "Behold, I make all things new." In religion we have not simply God but a new and deeper meaning for man's self and his whole world.

Religion meets three basic needs of humanity. First, we want to know not simply facts, such as science brings, but the meaning of facts, whether our life has any end beyond eating and drinking, sleeping and waking through our few years, and then turning again to the dust from which we came. What does life signify? Does our life fit in to something high and enduring? Second, we want to be. We want life, and life is more than existence or pleasure. Man is the one creature that lives in two worlds, the world that is and that which is to be. He belongs to this higher world. In it lie all the beauty and truth and goodness and love which he has not yet realized in his life. He knows that his real life lies somewhere there ahead. He sees the highest and he cannot be satisfied except as he seeks it. Third, we want help. We know only too well the evil within us, the lower that defeats the higher, the evil that fights against the good. We are divided within, and division means defeat. We are fragments; by ourselves we are nothing, and we want to be complete. We seek for something higher to which to give ourselves, something greater in which we can find life and strength.

This is why religion lives. Men may reject this answer or that given in the name of religion, but they will always be interested in these questions. A man's religion is his answer to these needs. Every man, so far as he rises above the level of the brute, must seek an answer to these problems which are the final problems of life. Other interests come and go; religion remains the supreme concern of man just because he is man.

2. The real root of religion is not man but God, the God who has made man with such needs and who is the answer to the needs that he has made. God comes first. Religion is not an invention but a response; it is man's answer to the unseen world. As sight is the answer to the world of light, hearing to the world of sound, reason to the order of the universe, and love to other spirits like our own, so religion is the answer to that third dimension of the universe, the Eternal that is infinitely above us but at the same time everywhere reaches down into our finite world and gives it meaning. The tides of this vast world of the unseen beat upon these lives of ours. Slowly man becomes aware of God, more slowly still he learns what God is. Some have found him through truth, more through love, some in the sense of awe before a strange holiness and majesty like that of the solemn heavens at night, some in the voice of conscience that holds before us the lofty and unbending claim of what is right and good. Religion is not our imagining. It is not wish-thinking. God is not something that we have compounded of our wishes and fears, and then projected into the heavens. The unseen world is there. Religion is our dim surmise of something vaster than all our thinking, something that has searched us and known us, that has beset us behind and before and laid its hand upon us. There will always be religion just because God is, because there is an Eternal that is above all change, a Holiness that is above our sin and folly, a Purpose that is waiting to give meaning to our lives, a Love that will not let us go.


Now we begin to see what religion is. There are endless definitions of religion. Not many of them are false; their fault is that they are only part of the truth. Religion is so great that we are apt to see only one aspect of it. For one man religion means correct belief; for another simply being good and doing good; for a third it is a mystical sense of awe and wonder, the stirring of heart in the presence of the Infinite. It is all these, and more. When man meets the Highest and bows before it, that is religion: "the deepest response of the self to the highest that we know." Here are at least two things involved: first, we find that Being before whose holiness we bow, in whose goodness we trust, upon whose power we feel that our life depends; second, we give ourselves to this Being in trust and obedience. In a word, religion means to find God, to see all things in his light, to do all by his strength and according to his will. There is thus a faith that engages the mind, a trust that involves the heart, an obedience that commands the will.

What, then, does religion do for man? What does it give us that we do not already have in business and pleasure, in science and art, in literature and learning? Now, religion does not exclude any of these, but these are all parts; religion is concerned with the whole and the highest. The task of religion is to lead man into the presence of the Most High and thus to show him the meaning of the whole and the way of life. We can put the gift of religion to man in three words: insight, right relations, life.

1. Religion brings insight. Sight is a good thing; it shows us this and that of which our world is made. But the trouble is that we see parts and not the whole, the surface and not the heart of things. Religion bids us look at the whole and ask what all this means, this world and this life of ours. To sight it adds insight and understanding. It bids us see one power, one purpose, one Spirit of goodness that is back of all things. It shows us God; and when we have found him, then everything else falls into place. Life is no longer empty and futile; our own life, even the humblest, gains a high meaning by being joined to the purpose of God.

2. Religion brings right relations. Adjustment, integration, right relation are words constantly emphasized today, and with right, for their absence is the source of the world's sin and suffering and unhappiness. We are divided within; we are not at peace even with ourselves. We are out of harmony with our fellows—man and man, nation and nation. We are not in right relation even with the world of things; in our greed and lust and self-indulgence we let that harm us which God placed here for our service. And, through ignorance and indifference and disobedience, we are out of right relation with God. Here, then, is the function of religion, first to bring us into fellowship with God, then through this fellowship to give us the guidance and motive and power for a new life, and so to set us into right relations with our fellows and our world. Religion means unity.

3. Religion brings life. For life comes always and only through right relations. When those are established, then the misunderstandings and antagonisms, the hatreds and fears, the weakness and failure, are overcome, and the way is opened to confidence and peace and strength.

This, then, is what religion does: It bids men see life whole; it shows man the world that is not seen; it reveals the rich and thrilling possibilities of life; it brings men into the presence of the Most High; it bids men bow in worship and rise with new confidence and high purpose; it sets man right with God and his world so that he may come to fullness of life for himself and richness of life in service.

And now we can see why religion is not only central in life but why it must be supreme. "The utmost for the highest" is the word that marks religion. Unless it brings the highest and demands the utmost it is not real religion.

"Religion's all or nothing; it's no mere smile

O' contentment, sigh of aspiration, sir—

No quality of the finelier-tempered clay

Like its whiteness or its lightness; rather, stuff

O' the very stuff; life of life, and self of self."


What now are the marks of a truly religious man ? What will be his inner spirit and attitude? It is interesting to see where the great teachers have found it Not in pious phrases ("Not every one that saith Lord, Lord"), not in free religious utterance ("The tongues of men and of angels"), not in strict observance of ritual and rule ("I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get"), nor in correct opinion ("The devils believe and tremble"). Rather, it has been in certain simple, though deep-reaching elements. We may begin with one of the great prophets, Micah, who spoke centuries before Socrates and Plato, and even before Buddha and Confucius. Lincoln once said that his words might well be put upon the walls of every church and temple: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Paul puts it in just four words: "faith working through love," and then more concretely and fully in his great chapter on love, ending with the triad, faith, hope, and love. Jesus sums it up in his double command, taken from the Old Testament, to love God with heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. We shall get Jesus' idea even more clearly if we study first the beatitudes, then the Lord's Prayer.

In all this we see religion not as word or deed or belief or emotion, but as inner spirit and attitude (1) There is the attitude of the religious man as he looks up. He is the man who sees the invisible, and lives in its presence and by its power. The intangibles of life count with him: beauty, truth, justice mercy. Above all, he has the sense of God, and toward God the spirit of reverence, awe, and adoration. (2) There is an attitude with which he looks out upon men and the world. He not only sees the unseen but lives by it. Therefore he owns the world and is not owned by it, whether by lust or fear. For his fellow men he has not only pity but reverence: he sees them, however low in the scale, as those who belong to God and are made for him. And beyond the world that is, with its ignorance and evil and unhappiness, he sees the world that God is shaping the realm of peace and justice, of truth and mercy that is yet to be. (3) There is a religious attitude in man's inner self: humility, a sense of dependence a realization of individual sin and shortcoming; but also high aspiration, a spirit of adventure, c courageous daring which belongs to one who has seen and believed and now goes forward undismayed at what comes because the event is with God.


  • Why does religion persist when its empirical forms are so commonly imperfect in ideas and practices?
  • What are the main elements that go to make up a man's religion?
  • What should religion do for a man?
  • What should religion do for society?
  • Who is the (ideally) religious man?
  • What are the chief hindrances to religion within the individual life?
  • What conditions or influences in society are most dangerous to religion?


The following works should be used in connection with later chapters as well:

  • J. B. Pratt: The Religious Consciousness
  • William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • E. W. Lyman: The Meaning and Truth of Religion
  • D. M. Edwards: A Philosophy of Religion
  • E. S. Brightman: A Philosophy of Ideals
  • G. T. W. Patrick: An Introduction to Philosophy
  • W. K. Wright: A Student's Philosophy of Religion
  • B. H. Thouless: Introduction to the Psychology of Religion
  • H. T. Houf: What Religion Is and Does