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Religion: Mental Fight

4 minute read

On a hill called Champel outside Geneva in 1553, green oak branches crackled in flames round the feet of a 42-year-old Spanish heretic named Michael Servetus. His heresy: that God was not Three-in-One but One, that man was not innately sinful but innately good. Throughout a three-months’ trial he had fought hard and long against stern John Calvin, “the Protestant Pope of Geneva,” and had lost. But in sending Servetus to the stake, Calvin’s Council gave the tiny, free-thinking sect, now known as Unitarians, its founder-martyr.

This week the ultraliberal, highbrow Unitarians still carried on their founder’s mental fight. They had not yet built any new Jerusalem, and the sword in their hand sometimes seemed hardly more than a paper-cutter. Nevertheless, they still remained inveterately optimistic about the nature of man, doggedly Unitarian about the nature of God.

Against the current theological trend from humanism toward the sinful-man orthodoxy of Barth and Niebuhr, the Boston-centered American Unitarian Association cut loose with a blast. To 10,000 leaders of U.S. opinion, Unitarians sent a pamphlet titled What Is This Neo-Orthodoxy?, first of a series “devoted to the problem of Liberalism v. Authoritarianism.”

The Retort Liberal. According to the Unitarians (who quote Niebuhr & Co. to prove their points), neo-orthodoxy “is a gospel of despair, asserting the inevitable sinfulness of man, and the hopelessness of his condition.” Its theology holds that “man’s sin is absolutely inevitable, and yet man is responsible for it. … The more man tries to do good, the more sinful he is! The more righteous we try to be, the more sinful we are! . . . God intervenes to save, but without any regard for the moral worth of either individual or society! Salvation by character is ridiculous! . . . This is the old Calvinistic determinism; and it is morally paralyzing. . . .No real or vital social gospel can remain under this revival of orthodoxy. Neo-orthodoxy recognizes that liberalism is the thing it must destroy.”

The blue and grey booklet consists mainly of eleven brief essays in which a number of Unitarian ministers strike their individual and individualistic blows for religious liberalism. Some representative samples:

“Liberalism regards man not as condemned, but as having an infinite capacity for goodness. He is the child of God, created in God’s image; although he has to struggle against his passions and his earthly heritage. . . . Therefore liberalism trusts man instead of distrusting him. It makes the individual the center of its interest and creates the Church and the State to serve him. . . . His conscience is the highest voice of authority that can speak to him.”

Betrayal & Defeat? “This (neo-orthodoxy] is a sad betrayal that can lead only to confusion. The forces of free religion must oppose this movement and check it. … As we repudiate totalitarian politics we must also repudiate totalitarian religion.”

‘Futilitarian Christian gadflies like Professor Reinhold Niebuhr among the Protestants and Dr. Fulton J. Sheen among the Catholics are filling the air with their veiled terrestrial defeatism. No hope for mankind on earth but in heaven if you believe. . . . No, the leap into supernaturalism, which hungry hearts took two thousand years ago to compensate for their frustrations, is hardly proof to intelligent minds today of the existence of such a world.”

But none of these modern Unitarian strong-talkers thought of quoting the words of their own Servetus in his cogent challenge to Calvin:

“All that men do you say is done in sin and merits nothing but eternal death. But therein you blaspheme. Stripping us of all possible goodness, you do violence to the teaching of Christ, who ascribes the power of being perfect to us: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ In the works of the saintly, there is nothing of the corruption you feign.”

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