The following is what happened when I was assigned a book report for a course on American religion. I wrote the report, but first I had to preface it with “A note on apologetics, on good and evil.” This little prologue has proved a concise and valuable statement on method that I since have not been able to replace in my mind.
I’ll include here also the book report, though with some hesitation. AMERICA’S REAL RELIGION, by Unitarian preacher A. Powell Davies, is not an important or influential book; I’m not aware of it having any legacy, even among the forgotten author’s own profuse writings. It seems purposeless and mean to disinter it from the dust just to gawk at its morbidity. But the ideas it trades in — none of them its own — were and are still relevant enough to make my assignment a little interesting. I mostly remember it, though, as the sequel to its prologue.
Doing an image search for “A. Powell Davies,” I came across some publicity shots for the 1936 Warner Bros. romance Hearts Divided, starring Dick Powell and Marion Davies. Of the 37 movies directed by Frank Borzage that I’ve seen, it ranks 35th. But if I’m going to post an image with this piece on “America’s real religion,” it’s going to be this one. Enjoy.
Michael Jones McCormick
12 November 2004
A note on apologetics, on good and evil
“You who are wise through grace know that what is plainly called ‘evil’ is not entirely evil, but in relation to one thing evil and in relation to another thing not evil. Likewise that which is plainly called ‘good’ is not entirely good, but in relation to one thing good and in relation to another thing not good.”
– St. Maximus the Confessor, on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
Everything is relative. That is, everything in this world, short of Jesus Christ, is relative. God is the only absolute. Created things can be used for good or evil, and are thus relative. When that which is relatively good is related to Jesus Christ, it becomes absolute by being related to the Absolute — it becomes the Body of Christ. This is what Orthodox Christians call deification. But if that which is relatively good fails to be related to Jesus Christ, then it remains relative to evil and not truly (absolutely) good. For what has light to do with darkness? In this way can such things be said as, There is none that doeth good, no not one (Ps. 13:4; Rom. 3:12), and further, Every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually (cf. Gen. 6:5). An absolute evil is not being proffered in these passages; there is no such thing as “absolute evil,” for evil has no substance. It is merely being said that creation falls short, in its volitional activity, of the only true, only good God. For evil consists in not relating that which is relatively good to the Absolute Good. And when Jesus Christ says, None is good, save one, that is, God (Luke 18:19), He means that nothing is good in and of itself (even prior to volitional activity), save God; everything else receives its goodness from the Creator — Who gives it being, besides goodness.
Therefore everything created is relative, starting with even the most comprehensive things. Death is not absolute evil, for, Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints (Ps. 115:6)—though indeed, The death of sinners is evil (Ps. 33:21). Life is not absolute good. Many shall rejoice at the birth of St. John the Baptist (cf. Luke 1:14), but it would have been better had Judas Iscariot never been born (cf. Mark 14:21). Created life and the death it may suffer are relative, dependent on how they are used. Only the Creator and Giver of life is Absolute Life.
Political liberty, as a lesser example, when used to build the Church, follow the commandments, and glorify Christ, is a relative thing made good by being turned and offered to the Absolute Good. Political liberty used to defy the Church, deny revelation, and pursue all manner of immorality and ungodliness — is a relative good made evil by being put to evil use. Likewise political persecution and incarceration are relative. Used to subdue the passions and to learn the love of enemies, they are good things. For, all things work together for good to them that love God (Rom. 8:28). Used for an excuse for bloodshed and violence, however, it is evil. This teaching is not to encourage passivity towards evil. “Well, the wrongful incarceration of those political prisoners wouldn’t be so evil if they turned to God in prayer, so I’m going to mind my own business,” one might reason. No, social injustice is still evil. To be deliberately passive to it is to make an absolute of the current state of relativity, which would be really evil and not at all befitting the real Absolute, Who yearns for all creation to put off evil and be engrafted in His Body. Life is still good and a gift from God, even if it can be used evilly; death is still evil, a corruption contrary to God’s intentions, even if it can be used as a vehicle to everlasting Good. Having learned that all creation is relative to the Creator and capable of being put to good or evil use, one should not forget that good is still good and evil is still evil. Therein sounds the call for apologists.
The art of apologists, then, is the application — inspired by the Incarnation of God the Word — of an absolute theology to a relative world. It is the practice of discernment between good and evil. Positive apologetics, on the one hand, are engaged in order to retrieve that which has been lost, to find the relative good and relate it to the Absolute Good by offering it to God. This is an apostolic act. But it should actually be a constant activity of all Orthodox Christians: Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honourable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (Phil. 4:8). On the occasion, however, that something only relatively good or true or just or lovely presumes to be absolutely so (whereas none is good save one, that is, God), then negative apologetics are required in order to defend the Truth, the mystery of Christ in the hearts of men, and to scatter the wolves threatening the members of Christ’s flock. This too can be an apostolic act, as we know from the Lives of Saints, that some of them actively destroyed the temples and idols of pagans. A Church Father does this when he combats a heresy, or a modern apologist does this when he uses reason or Scripture or whatever means to attack a contemporary anti-Christian philosophy. For beginners, though, it should be said, positive apologetics are preferred because the potential there for fostering love outweighs the danger of accepting error, whereas with negative apologetics, the temptation to hate outweighs the potential of perfecting one’s worldview. At any rate, both are needed.
It follows, then, that when defending against the incursion of some evil, one must maintain one’s composure and not commit idolatry. No relative good should be mistaken for the Absolute Good. This is commonly done with political opinions (especially a problem in America), cultural predilections (the source for many wars — and church disputes), or personal dispositions (a universal problem). As a result of such relative goods being wrongfully promoted to absolute status, their correlating relative evils are also granted absolute status. This entails a complete failure of discernment and a whole host of ensuing problems, for neither relative good nor relative evil is absolute. People are wrongfully pegged as evil, and relative good in, say, a political opponent is trampled underfoot when really it belongs to God. Importantly to the apologist, one must remember that there is no absolute evil. There is relative good in all created things. If you battle against some relative evil as if it has substance, then the good that you are trying to champion loses its substance by becoming relative to evil instead of to the Absolute Good. This is what St. Paul learned when the Absolute Good threw him off his horse and told him, It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks (Acts 26:14). For who had a stronger sense of good and evil than Saul? Mosaic Law had trained him in it, but he did not have Christ. Therefore his “good,” that which to him was good (and which had been ordained so by God Himself in the Old Covenant), had turned unthinkably evil — until, that is, God honored Saul’s valiant separation of good and evil and forcefully showed him what is truly Good. Saul became Paul and never looked back. His secret, poorly kept, was Christ.
So one must always keep a balance in one’s heart between positive and negative apologetics, loving what is good and hating evil, and therefore centering one’s perspective always on the Absolute Good, that is, Jesus Christ. Such should be the heart of the apologist, but the work of the apologist need not always exhibit an external balance between positive and negative. One may not need to chastise a convert fresh to the Church whose heart is in the right place — or anyone, for that matter, who may have a wrong opinion about something, but whose heart is in the right place. Then, in some other circumstances, a little rebuke can be beneficial. At other times relentless castigation may be needed — times when a positive appreciation of some relative good would just be useless. In Church history, there have been times when a positive appeal to semi-Arians was appropriate, when they showed revulsion to pure Arianism. Severan Non-Chalcedonianism presented such a predicament that it necessitated an Ecumenical Council (the Fifth) to be called, not to condemn it, but to try to convert it. On the other hand Monothelitism was such a subtle but drastic problem, pervasive and long-standing, that a stubborn breach in communion was necessary in order to rouse a sleeping giant, the Chalcedonian Byzantine Empire. Similarly, the false ecumenism among the Orthodox in our own day is such a subtle but drastic problem, pervasive and long-standing. But contrarily, due to the nature of the heresy — loving men more than God — it is necessary to solve the problem by, of course, an Orthodox confession of faith, but one mixed with love and patience and not schism, in order to prove that loving God first, and therefore protecting His identity as confessed among men, only intensifies and vivifies one’s love for mankind. After all, the increasingly cold hearts of men in our times indicate a disease deeper and greater than ecumenism, a disease on which this heresy and the hateful schisms related to it thrive.
As can be seen therefore, engaging in apologetics is a matter requiring the utmost wisdom, informed by Christ-like love, a love capable when necessary of taking the form of judgment. Knowing when and where and how much to praise good and persecute evil takes an inspired artist — a crucified artist. How do you know when to censure Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan (Matt. 16:23), on the one hand, and on the other, when passively to let Judas embrace you and kiss your face, to his own condemnation? Only a Christian who is crucified, or on his way to be crucified, can make such discernment.
A. Powell Davies (1902–1957). America’s Real Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965. From sermons delivered at All Souls (Unitarian) Church, Washington, D.C. First published 1949.
The ancient Romans conquered the world by assimilating all local gods into one pantheon. Thereby all nations could be grouped in one Empire, centered on the cult of the Emperor, whose image was made present throughout the land by statues and coins (in a pagan culture where such images had godlike powers). Julius Caesar (d. 44 BC) was the first to be called emperor; he was also the first man who while still living had his image placed on coins. He claimed divine descent and promoted the cults of the gods who he claimed were his ancestors. His great-nephew and successor Octavian, that is, Augustus Caesar (r. 27 BC–14 AD), soon after defeating Antony and Cleopatra and founding the Empire proper, proclaimed the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, adding him to the pantheon and building a temple to him in the Roman Forum. This move establishes for Augustus what Julius had had, a claim of divine descent. Indeed you could say he was the son of god (or of a god), as was the next emperor Tiberius (r. 14–37 AD) when he pronounced the apotheosis of Augustus, his then-reposed stepfather. The imperial passion for divine presumption only grew: the Emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 AD) had statues of himself made in the role of Jupiter. After the demise of Nero and subsequent chaos, Emperor Vespasian (r. 69–79 AD), formerly the commander of the Roman legions in Judea, finally deified Claudius as he himself founded a new dynasty, using his and his sons Titus and Domitian’s success in the Jewish War as the foundation of their power.
Throughout the syncretizing process that theologically enabled the Roman conquest, only one nation had stood out as non-conformable. Polytheism could be amalgamated into a universal system, but the inveterate monotheism revealed to the Jews offered the only rival universal theology that could not be syncretized; it could only compete. And circumcision and other practices of the Covenant offered a visible and practical separation that fortified the theological purity. As the brotherhood of man collected itself under the auspices of self-deification, therefore, only the people set aside and prepared for the purpose of bringing forth Christ could not join the party. Titus (r. 79–81 AD), the destroyer of Jerusalem, deified his father Vespasian, and Domitian (r. 81–96 AD) — crown of the Vespasian dynasty — deifying his brother Titus, went further, becoming the first emperor to claim divinity while still alive, demanding to be known as Dominus et Deus.
The appearances of John the Baptist and the Prophet Elijah provide not the only parallel between the first and second comings of Christ. Again the brotherhood of man gathers for the age-old project of self-deification, and again those chosen ones of God, circumcised in heart, having already received the deification achieved in Christ Jesus, alone cannot participate. A. Powell Davies’ America’s Real Religion (1949) provides an example, on the popular level and not very well-developed in thought, of the humanism that presumes to take the place of Christianity.
“America’s real religion” (so-called), that Davies advocates, is democracy: “the social and political expression of the religious principle that all men are brothers and mankind a family; democracy is brotherhood: brotherhood unrestricted by nation, race, or creed” (9). By “brotherhood” can be understood human nature, which is the god of this religion, the religion most properly called humanism.
That humanity is the center of all worship for Davies is revealed in such quotations as “That the higher religion was a natural religion, placed it in opposition to Christianity only to the extent that the latter had become an unnatural religion; a religion, that is, unreasonable in its beliefs and too confining in its ethical outlook” (48). For something to be true, it has to conform to man, who is the standard of all truth. By such a criterion anything supernatural, that is, greater than human nature — such as the God Who created all nature — is shut out, declared unnatural, and untrue. For a deist, that It is God that hath made us, and not we ourselves (Ps. 99:26), though it may be believed, is deprived of any ontological or ethical import, and is not even worth remembering. In the thought of a Unitarian such as Davies, it is not remembered. The creation of man is not an issue, and a supernatural Creator is nonexistent.
Man, rather, is loved and worshiped as God and is even identified as God, as when Davies says of Jefferson that as a deist he “believed that God was manifested in the natural workings of the universe and in the life of man” (33). Likewise Davies, in accord with Enlightenment opinion, radically reinterprets the Gospel: “Miracles and myth meant nothing to the real Jesus who walked and talked in Galilee; to him, the one miracle was the miracle of God in human life” (51). That is, God is human life. Man is God.
Thus the two great evangelical commandments, which Jefferson dubs “the sum of pure religion, …to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves” (10) are effectively condensed into just one commandment — to love man — which is the meaning of the first command as well as the second, if God equals man. Accordingly, “The love of man for man became the love that conquered fear. Here was the better key to unlock mysteries; here was the path to nobler living, the freeing of the mind, the fullness of the heart, the true redemption of the spirit” (17, emphasis added).
That God is identified as man, furthermore, must be used to interpret the meaning of Davies’ words: “What, then, were the distinguishing marks of the American Apostles? Both within the churches and outside them, they were these: the freedom of their minds, the tenacity of their search for truth, the boldness of their ethical insights, the depth of their respect for human rights, the zeal of their faith in human nature, and the humility they felt before the ultimate Mystery [none other than human nature, the object of their faith] which some of them revered in silence and others named as God. But the one thing that all insisted upon was freedom: freedom without which truth could not be tested [according to the standard of man], nor the welfare of mankind discerned, nor the God who is Spirit [the spirit of man] sought and worshipped” (48).
To the teaching that establishes humanity as the utmost object of faith and worship, a doctrine of universalism, excluding a supernatural God, must be joined. Once, that is, the project of human self-deification is inaugurated, the syncretism of the nations ensues. Emerson, for example, “gave to the higher religion a plainer enunciation; so that the New World faith began to be clearer, and its roots — traced back through all the great religions into the nature of man himself — were seen to be universal” (51). Again, Davies speaking on Emerson’s philosophy says, “All the great religions at their best were pointing towards the same goals, and it was the insights they held in common, together with their united emphasis upon justice, truth and love — their ethical emphasis — that should be exalted, not the antagonism between their creeds” (50). The desire of humanism, then, is to redirect all the virtues of other religions into the service of mankind first and foremost, worshiping no God but man.
Indeed, humankind is the new absolute, to replace all former absolutes, of which Davies speaks pejoratively as “dogmas” and “creeds.” Of course, Davies is very hypocritical on this point. His “higher religion” is no less without its dogma and creed, no more than it is without its own absolute god, human nature. That Davies does not see that any absolute held by a human religion will need to be defined and protected from falsehood is due to a lack of development in philosophical thought. For instance, consider the fact that Unitarians are by no means the only group making a bid for the syncretist philosophy of a new world empire. A Unitarian such as Davies and a modernist Hindu such as Swami Vivekananda may agree that all religions are different paths to the same goal, may even quote each other to prove the point (not that they do), but they will still argue over who has the better path based on different understandings of the nature of man. Is man social? Is man spiritual? And another might ask: Is man sexual? — poking at the mysterious union of soul and body that is man. And what of death, an issue that Davies never addresses? Clearly, dogma would have to be laid down concerning the definition of man in order to settle disputes and to protect devotees of the true religion from inadequate or false conceptions of their idol of worship.
One must then consider the accusations of spiritual pride and religious imperialism (cf. 79) that Davies attaches to anyone who holds an absolute as returning and sticking to Davies’ own humanism. “The world will never unite behind a Christian creed, or any other creed” (80), Davies says. Of course, any absolute theoretically can unite the world, if it is so agreed upon — and Davies is proposing an absolute, a creed, just as any religion normally does. Rather, Davies is really making here the spurious claim that unity is impossible if man has any kind of relationship with an uncreated, supernatural God.
A difference is made, then, by agnosticism. Davies makes a little fuss over the difference between atheism and agnosticism (cf. 54–55). Let it be said here that atheists presume knowledge that there is no God, whereas agnostics merely resolve to act as though there is no God. However, of the sovereignty of humanity as the standard of truth, even over a potentially extant supernatural God, the agnostics seem to have no lack of knowledge or certainty. Indeed if Davies is any indication, it seems that most of them are willing to defend their ignorance (agnosticism’s cognate) vigorously, should it ever be threatened by an incursion of the Divine.
Davies thus carves for himself an exclusivist position: “If [humanism] is our basic faith,” he exposits, “and if we are willing to reject beliefs of every kind that contradict or limit it, then we are reaffirming the religion upon which democracy is founded” (9). Nonetheless, Davies does not shy from feigning inclusiveness; on the one hand he does say, “The faith upon which democracy is founded [is] the faith to which all other faiths are ancillary and provincial” (66) — but “[That is] not [to say] that there is no room in the world for religious denominations. It is not the special emphasis of one religion as over against another that does the damage: it is the authoritarian claim to supremacy. That and the transgression of freedom and brotherhood” (80) — which should be granted its authoritarian claim to supremacy. Really, one wonders if the totalitarian State-church conjured in the mind by Davies’ outrageous claims could really foster the freedom so essential to it. After all, human nature is common to everyone; therefore to activate this god, all are obliged to participate, and no one is free to worship the God Who creates, provides for, and loves us continually. Anyway, Davies continues, “Provided the basic faith of the denominations is the one upon which democracy is founded, the individual emphasis is secondary” (80). Sure, absolute gods can be worshiped, provided they are believed to be relative to human nature, he is saying, mindlessly. One cannot worship multiple absolutes. Ye cannot serve God and mammon (Matt. 6:24).
So if you choose the brotherhood of man over against confessing the existence of the one true God, then you are a humanist. New World poet and prophet of humanism Edwin Markham provides an illustration of this anthropotheology. As praised by Davies, “He gave us in simplest, epigrammatic form, the declaration of the higher religion’s creedless universality:
‘He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love [for man] and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in!’” (64).
The grave deficiency of the circle of humanism is that it shuts God out, labels him a heretic, a rebel, and a thing to flout. Well, if there is a God (the possibility of which an agnostic should be able to admit), and He did create us, and He is the continual source of our being and goodness, then ostracizing him may be downright self-destructive, not to mention ungrateful and a host of other defects not becoming to human nature. The results of thus abandoning God would be the ignition of wide-scale murder and violence and all evil, like unto the French and Russian Revolutions, or like unto the besieged Jerusalem during the Christ-denying Jewish revolt alluded to above. If the American Revolution has avoided such exceptional violence (ignoring the genocide of Native Americans on which the United States is built, as well as the fact that far more people were killed in the Civil War than in any war previous, as well as that our modern economy rests upon an unprecedented massacre of unborn fetuses — but ignoring all that), then maybe it is because “America’s real religion” is still up for grabs. One might very well concede to Davies that the founders and builders of the nation were largely members of his God-hating humanist religion. But on the popular level — which still defines a democracy — there is still a great struggle (which Davies admits), and the heart of the nation, as weak as it is sometimes, has not yet forgotten God. And despite the evil that it does, it has not yet made a final decision on whom it loves more: God or man. Lucifer preferred the relative glory of his own nature to that infinite and absolute glory of the Triune Godhead. Lord Jesus Christ, Thou God incarnate, Who was crucified and rose again, preserve us from the endless and horrifying banality of such a death.
“Let us use peace in the right way: repudiating our evil alliance with the world and its ruler, let us at last break off the war which we wage against God through the passions. Concluding an unbreakable covenant of peace with Him by destroying the body of sin within us (cf. Rom. 6:6), let us put an end to our hostility towards Him.”
– St. Maximus the Confessor
Ad Thalassium 43. Quoted in Paul M. Blowers, Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor: An Investigation of the Quaestiones ad Thalassium (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), p. 190.
Epistle 24. Excerpted in “Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice,” The Philokalia, Volume Two (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 172.