Bahai News - The Power of Faith
Faith in the Future 3 - The Power of Faith
by John Deverell
November 18, 2000
This is the third of a series of articles on "Faith in the Future".
The first in the series is "The Need for
This article continues the discussion in my article entitled "Religion in Retreat"
Having tried all manner of alternatives and found them wanting, perhaps
it's time we gave religion a second look, approaching it with a new state
Swamped as we are in a culture which tends to see religion as a hindrance
to intellectual and social progress, it would surprise many to realise
that this is not necessarily so. Henry Chadwick, a leading historian of
Christianity, points out that in the early days of the new movement's
spread through the Roman Empire, its followers were keen to enter into
discussions with the intellectuals of their day, and frequently came off
well in the exchange. The history of Christianity down through the ages
glitters with brilliant intellectual achievements and social innovations.
Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were the leading
lights of their day. Christian monks brought literacy to the barbarians
of Europe. In a later time, Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist of
the period known as the Age of Reason, was a fervent believer in God.
Devout Catholics, Descartes and Pascal are numbered among the great
philosophers. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, played a
significant role in bringing about better conditions for workers in
Britain as well as regenerating the spiritual life of many ordinary
people. The founder of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel, was a Catholic
monk. Down to the present, there are great benefactors of humanity who
draw their primary inspiration from their Christian faith. Dr Martin
Luther King is just one modern example who springs to mind. It is evident
from this brief survey that religion is not necessarily bound up with
reactionary social policy and second-rate thinking.
In its early days Christianity represented a major advance over the
existing world-views of the peoples it spread amongst-and a highly
disturbing one to some of the guardians of orthodox views at that time.
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), in encapsulates the early vitality and vigour
of Christianity in the following passage:
A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and
establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part
of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by
open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion
gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and
obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the
triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol. Nor was the
influence of Christianity confined to the period or to the limits of the
Roman Empire. After a revolution of thirteen or fourteen centuries that
religion is still professed by the nations of Europe, the most
distinguished portion of human kind in arts and learning as well as in
arms. By the industry and zeal of the Europeans it has been widely
diffused to the most distant shores of Asia and Africa; and by the means
of their colonies has been firmly established from Canada to Chili, in a
world unknown to the ancients. (Gibbon, Edward, History of the Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire, in Pelikan, ed., p. 34)
And yet today, 200 years after Gibbon wrote those words, the vitality
of Christianity seems to be no longer sufficient to attract the active
support of the majority of Europeans, the very race which was responsible
for carrying its message throughout a large part of the globe. What
happened? One of the main factors was a growing divergence between the
everyday concepts by which people conducted their lives and the realm of
religious belief. A cleavage appeared, and constantly widened, between
sacred and secular. One of the early cracks to show was the Catholic
Church's conflict with Copernicus and Galileo. Copernicus calculated that
the earth revolved around the sun. The church condemned Copernicus' theory
in 1616 and later condemned Galileo for supporting his findings.
Darwin's and Huxley's later collision with the ecclesiastical authorities
of the Church of England is also usually mentioned in this context.
Charles Darwin took the existing theory of evolution and developed it into
a formidable science through his life-long researches into geology and
biology. Huxley, a fellow-member of the Royal Society, publicised Darwin's
theories and used them in his personal battle against the religious
establishment of Victorian England.
In hindsight, what is so very puzzling about these episodes is that
religious leaders found it necessary to go to battle at all. Today's
Catholics apparently find no detriment to their faith in accepting, as
everyone else does, that ours is a tiny planet circling a medium-sized
star in a vast universe. In June this year Pope John Paul II visited
Copernicus' birthplace and praised his scientific achievements.
(Reported by CNN.com on June 7, 1999, "Pope praises once-condemned
findings of Copernicus".) As to Darwin, Fernandez-Armesto put the matter
succinctly as follows: "Darwinism itself was ambiguous. It was ambiguous
about Providence, for whereas Darwin and Huxley conceived evolution as a
mechanism for eliminating the need of God, the likes of Mivart and
Charles Kingsley hailed it as God's way of mediating His purpose."
(Fernandez-Armesto, p. 438) If sufficiently agile religious minds can
take scientific advances in their stride, why should there have been a
problem? To understand this, we need to consider the human liking for
tradition. Mostly we prefer the well-trodden path. As Jesus said: "No
man also having drunk old wine straightaway desireth new: for he saith,
The old is better." (Luke 5:39)
When the Founder of Christianity made this observation, He was surely
referring to a major theme of His message: the clash between entrenched
tradition—"the old is better"—and the unrestrained voice of truth.
In the Gospels, the tension builds in Jesus' encounters with the
establishment of the day in various incidents, such as their disapproval
of His acts of healing on the Sabbath day, His exposure of hypocrisy by
the accusers of a woman caught in the act of adultery, and his
discussions with the legal experts in Jerusalem, where his penetrating
answers to their provocative questions showed up the woeful inadequacy
of their attitudes and views. The culmination of the divine drama of His
earthly life was His arrest, the sentence of death imposed on Him in the
dead of night, and the cruel execution before jeering, cursing crowds on
Good Friday. However this was not to be the end, for the spiritual
forces released by His sacrifice were destined to soon reinvigorate His
momentarily dejected followers, and turn them into conquerors of hearts
and souls, leaving a legacy of love and courage that shines out to this
What were the factors which led to the death of Christ? Among them we
may observe the rigid and narrow views held by the religious leaders who
opposed Him, their fixed resistance to the vitality and power of His
message, and their anxiety to retain their own power and privileges.
When they disapproved of the good He did, they attributed His power to
the devil! Might we not further observe that similar attitudes were
demonstrated by those religious leaders of a later age who opposed
Galileo, on the grounds that his findings were inconsistent with the
established doctrines of the Church, and were a threat to its authority.
Might we not conclude from such occurrences that when religion comes
into disrepute, it is because it has blocked itself off from the very
springs of truth which feed it. When Jesus stood before Pilate to answer
the charges brought against Him, His defence consisted of these words:
"Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this
cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.
Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice."
A few found this voice so wonderfully attractive that they fell under
its spell immediately and gave the rest of their lives for it. The
amazing, immediate, electrified response of some who met Him is borne
out by this account from the gospel of Matthew:
And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren,
Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea:
for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will
make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and
followed him. And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James
the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their
father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they immediately
left the ship and their father, and followed him. (Matthew
Has this voice, once so fresh and powerful, lost its influence? In
the my next article, "The Renewal of
Religion", we reply to some modern sceptics.
For further information...
The author is a follower of the Baha'i Faith. For further
information about the Baha'i Faith, please visit the Baha'i World site.
©Copyright 2000, John Deverell
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