[This is a lay sermon given by Dwight Murphey to the congregation at the
in Universalist Church in 1962 or early 1963. Other discussion by Murphey of his secular-religious philosophy can be found in the first five chapters of his book Emergent Man; in his article in the Occasional Review (see also the Postscript) on the meaning of life as seen by three psychologists; in his St. Croix Review article entitled “Spiritual Values and a Free Society;” in his Sept/Oct 1995 Conservative Review article “Do the Constraints of a Free Society Suffocate Freedom? A Two-Centuries Dilemma Raised (Once Again) by The Bridges of Madison County; and in the letter of Denver Jan. 12, 1989, to his daughter (a letter found in the Correspondence section of this Web site as item C3.]
The Affirmatives of Liberal Religion
With respect to liberal religion, there is a great deal to say, and very little time this morning to say it. I have chosen as the subject of my remarks “The Affirmatives of Liberal Religion.” I hope at least to show that in liberal religion there lies a positive, substantial creed and that it is through the adoption of this creed as a life-affirming philosophy that the liberal religious movement can best serve the spiritual needs of contemporary human beings.
But first, before discussing these affirmatives, I would like to give you some idea as to my view of the nature of religion. I myself identify religion with a man’s sense of worth, with his sense of personal destiny, and with the intensely meaningful process of personal involvement – in terms both of agony and of ecstasy – that is so often a part of the fully creative life. To me, religion answers the questions of “Why am I significant?,” “Where am I going?,” and provides as well a sense of identification between the individual man, on the one hand, and the great run of life and of circumstance in which he finds himself, on the other.
It is to be seen, then, that in my view of it religion is concerned with the higher-toned values. It treats of life as an intrinsically serious matter. It is only to the extent that we take ourselves as intellectual and spiritual beings seriously that religious questions arise to be faced. If we do not care to ask “Why am I significant?,” “Where am I going?,” and “Am I truly a part of this existence?,” we do not come face to face with religion; we remain below the threshold of that nobility of existence that seeks to live and die with cosmic dignity, with the pulsating, energizing, proud awareness that there is something here that is supremely worthwhile, and that we, as individual men, are identifiable with it and in our own right are significant in conjunction with it. If there is anyone here, then, to whom life has always been contentment, to whom there has been no sense of impelling time, and to who it is sufficient merely to be and ultimately to die, without more, then these remarks are not addressed to such a person. Religious questions are meaningful only to those who have in some person way felt either the nagging emptiness that comes from a failure to answer them or the life-affirming satisfactions that come from resolving them. They are not questions that are made up out of whole-cloth. They are real questions to those who are sensitive to them, as I think most human beings at one time or another and in one way or another must almost certainly be. They deal with a man’s sense of the meaning of his life.
This, then, is my view of religion. It is a broad definition. It may or may not have anything to do with a God or a Christ or a Buddha. Religion, it seems to me, is properly definable in terms of the questions with which it deals, and not necessarily in terms of the answers any given religion may pose to those questions, which are themselves logically prior.
There is still a second point that I think it is necessary to discuss before stating the affirmatives of liberal religion. We need to understand just how far we are from religion. It seems to me that there is very little religion in our present way of life. In fact, we have a way of life that by its very structure tends to kill and to suffocate a truly meaningful existence in a religious sense. We live in a sterile reality, and the religious life is consigned to a separate reality, incommunicable to it and repressed by it.
In my book Emergent Man I have referred to these two co-existing realities as the “sterile reality” and the “obscene reality.” What possibly can I mean by saying that we live in a split reality and that the predominating medium for present-day existence is sterile, while the meaningful parts of life are hidden away and repressed, or – to put it another way – treated as though they were obscenities?
The best way to explain it is to take an example. Let us suppose that two men meet together at a filling station pump. The first of these men is an economist who is a member of the Federal Reserve Board. He is on his way to an urgent meeting of the Board at a time of acute international monetary crisis, and on the way stops in at the station to fill his car with gas. For years this man has studied the intricacies of technical economics. He is an expert on international trade. His concern for it is the great intellectual preoccupation of his life, and at this time of crisis he feels fully the responsibility, mixed with the raw intellectual pleasure that comes from dealing with difficult problems.
The young man who comes out to meet him at the pump is subjectively a million miles away from him. Let us assume he is in love with a girl and that he has been sitting in the station counting the minutes until his shift comes to an end so that he can go to her. He has been, before the car came into the station, deeply engrossed in his thoughts about the girl.
Here we have two men, each living a deeply subjective reality of his own. They meet together in the station. But what do they talk about? Do they retain in their contact with each other any semblance of their own realities? The answer is obvious. They talk about the weather, whether it will snow tomorrow or be nice for the weekend, whether the Yankees are going to win the world championship again this year. What passes between them is trivia. Their whole exchange, as one human being to another, has no relation to the things that are subjectively most meaningful to either of them. Unfortunately, such an interchange becomes the standard form of human contact in any commercial civilization. There are thousands, in fact billions, of these contacts every day. Almost universally the medium of interchange is one of trivia.
The upshot of this vast intercourse founded upon the trivial is that it becomes in its own right the common denominator of our lives with each other. It becomes a replacement for a real exchange of feelings and ideas. And what is worse, it is so pervasive that it is possible for millions of people to look at this trivia, become preoccupied with it and come to think of it as the main substance of life, so that these millions adopt the trivia itself as the main content of their lives, not even being aware that intensely meaningful preoccupations of other sorts are possible. For someone who becomes absorbed in this sterile outer reality of the trivial, of the commonplace, the essence of life becomes one of bantering these trivia back and forth, and of enjoying a series of loose-jointed pleasures. Such people become play-directed, and they watch television at night, ski on weekends, take an oil painting course or so, and exist in a life of constantly passing fancy until eventually they get old and die.
And, at the same time, the very existence of this pervasive reality based on trivia renders the personal life of the man who wishes greater intellectual and emotional attainments obscene. He becomes more and more self-contained, isolated from any really meaningful interchange with his fellow man. So far as the things that are meaningful to him are concerned, he tends to be isolated, and this enforced isolation in turn tends to create a deep sense of frustration and alienation. It is for this reason that I think Existentialism, with its expression of despair, boredom and alienation, has struck closest to the spiritual problems of modern man.
This is to be a short talk this morning, so I can’t take the time to speak more fully of the consequences of this split between our sterile outer-reality and the enforced obscenity of the soul of man, which is isolated and repressed under the weight of the trivia which runs over everything and everybody like a mist. I can only refer to it in passing, as a necessary introduction to my main discussion, which concerns the affirmatives of liberal religion.
Let me say first that since I am an agnostic, I have no suggestions as to a supernatural solution to these spiritual problems of modern man. Indeed, I feel that for the most part organized religion has failed to recognize the split subjective realities in which we live and to undertake any meaningful steps to elevate man above the triviality of the sterile reality which absorbs so much of our present civilization.
To me, the great affirmatives of religion in terms of the questions I have raised and of the human circumstance to which I have pointed are to be found in the life-impulse of living men. The source of greatness as well as of mediocrity is the spirit of individual men. They bring to life the motive-power, the intellect, the compassion, and the energy that can alone build this life into something meaningful and proud. It is from the bowels of men that true religion must spring. It is what they make of themselves that life will be.
I would say that the first affirmative, then, is to be found in the unabashed exaltation of the inquisitiveness of man, which will permit him to express fully his sense of wonder and thereby to catch up into his life the great run of fascination through the vigorous application of his mind to the multitude of things about him.
Not long ago, I read an essay by a man who has spent his life studying beetles. To him, there is nothing more loveable or more fascinating than a beetle. He has watched them by the hour, thoroughly engrossed. He tells in his essay of a couple of beetles working on a dung pile. But he tells of this as though it were poetry in motion. One beetle he watched worked for hours slowly, very painstakingly rolling small pieces of the dung into a larger ball. The idea was to get it so he could roll it down to his lair and store it as food. As he worked, a second beetle sat lazily over to one side. When the ball was finished, the first beetle began tugging at and pushing the ball, slowly moving it down off the pile. The other beetle, instead of helping, hopped onto the ball and clung to it, not sharing in any of the work, and in fact even getting a free ride. After a long ride by the one beetle and quite an effort by the other, the ball reached the entrance of the lair. At this point, the beetle who had been clinging to the ball, even letting it roll over him at times, jumped off and without too much of a fight, because the other was worn out from his effort, took both the dung ball and the lair away from him.
How often have you and I – those of us here together in this room this morning – seen beetles with sightless, uncomprehending eyes, finding them so far below the threshold of our attention that we have failed to find in them anything romantic or poetic? The man who wrote the essay found that in taking up just this one tiny particle of life, there was an immensity of interest. It absorbed him and became genuinely a source of real love and of very real satisfaction.
Here we find an excellent example of our first affirmative. The man who studies the movement of the stars or who watches closely the goings-on of beetles or who dedicates himself to a mastery of technical economics or who is in love with a girl, each such man has himself, through his own energizing spark of life made a great something out of what would otherwise be a great nothing. Here we see no mystical or supernatural answer to the question of “Why am I significant?” The love of life spurred on by the motive-power of the men themselves itself provides the answer. Ask two people in love “Where are you going?,” “Why are you significant?,” and the answer will come back in a bubbling exuberance that love itself is the justification and the direction, and a glorious one, at that. The answer is to be found in the underlying, overwhelming corpus of life itself.
Now to say all this may seem as popular and as trite as to praise motherhood, God and country. But let me say that a way of life genuinely based on this affirmative is a long way from the way of life we are absorbed in today. How many times have I met a dead silence when I have mentioned to a girl I was dating that I have just read a book or that I have just spent an evening listening to Beethoven? How often have I been told, time and time again, that these things are dull and uninteresting, and that I ought to become more “well rounded”; that is to say, more absorbed in the extroverted reality of trivia that declaims against every really vital touch with life and declares it – to use the word I have coined in this connection to describe the repression – declares it “obscene.” We have a long way to go, it seems to me, before the full joy of the intellect is open as a source of religious satisfaction to the broad mass of our contemporaries.
It should be apparent, as a second affirmative, that the serious use of intellect as a source of joy leads one directly to a compelling sense of personal purpose. As I have tried to show, the serious application of mind to everything about us isn’t just a dead category. It takes a million shapes and wraps up the man with it. It carries him along in a world full of meaning and very often he can’t rest, at least not spiritually, until the perplexities and challenges he faces have been turned from the tangled chaos of incomprehension into the ecstatic vision of resolution. Whether the seriously creative man is temperamentally given to such crescendos or to a calmer, more reflective tackling of problems, its draw is there and spiritually he is moved onward by it, driven by his own intimate tie with that aspect of life which he has chosen to love.
From this serious application of his mind to his life and from this sense of driving purpose, it seems to me that there must of necessity arise a third affirmative: A sense of personal elevation, of pride and of earned self-esteem. Here we have a man who no longer genuinely subscribes to the doctrine that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” No longer, when we speak of such a man, can we think of the St. Augustinian view of man as degraded as being worth the dignity of the name “religious.” The affirmatives of liberal religion seek the exaltation of man. When understood in distinct contrast to those doctrines that have for thousands of years preached an opposite point of view, it appears clearly that liberal religion has a great and affirmative task, a positive challenge which is limitless in its scope and radical in its innovation.
I am sorry that there isn’t time enough to go further in the discussion of these affirmatives. I have just barely been able to suggest what they are. Since I intend them seriously and not just as a flight of romantic fancy, I would suggest that a philosophy that seeks the exaltation of man bears an extensive burden. It is concerned with a clear conception of the philosophy and method of science, it is deeply involved in problems of epistemology, faces all of the problems of jurisprudence men have ever faced, requires a responsible understanding of economics and of political philosophy, and must itself formulate a life-affirming ethic of vast scope and even great significance.
And finally I would read to you the statement by Benjamin Franklin with which I have begun the last chapter of my book and would say, without any hesitation, that it is only through a philosophy of individual liberty that men can be elevated. The man who shuffles his feet as he marches into a military mess hall, with his own nose pressed close against the neck of the man in front of him, has in that circumstance no experience of his own great worth, feels only humiliation, and knows none of the pride that liberal religion would have him feel. It is only through liberty that the exaltation of man the individual can be achieved.
But it is likewise only through men who are worthy of liberty that liberty can be had and kept. “
will not descend to a people,” Ben Franklin wrote. “A people must raise themselves to liberty; it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.” It takes backbone to have liberty. If we want God, motherhood, country, and the affirmatives of liberal religion, we will have to have a greater tenacity, a clearer perspective, a more intense single-mindedness of purpose than I see anywhere in Liberty today. And more than anything else, we must come to see that the lives so many of us lead are essentially not religious at all, but are instead founded on values of a lower-toned nature. It is only by elevating the obscene soul of man out of its isolation, and giving it the central place in our conversation and in our everyday preoccupation that life can go on to its next higher plateau and can solve the spiritual dilemmas of modern man. America