RELIGION is the last subject that the intellect begins to understand. In our youth we may have resented, with proud superiority, its cherished incredibilities; in our less confident years we marvel at its prosperous survival in a secular and scientific age, its patient resurrections after whatever deadly blows by Epicurus, or Lucretius, or Lucian, or Machiavelli, or Hume, or Voltaire. What are the secrets of this resilience?
The wisest sage would need the perspective of a hundred lives to answer adequately. He might begin by recognizing that even in the heyday of science there are innumerable phenomena for which no explanation seems forthcoming in terms of natural cause, quantitative measurement, and necessary effect. The mystery of mind still eludes the formulas of psychology, and in physics the same astonishing order of nature that makes science possible may reasonably sustain the religious faith in a cosmic intelligence. Our knowledge is a receding mirage in an expanding desert of ignorance. Now life is rarely agnostic; it assumes either a natural or a supernatural source for any unexplained phenomenon, and acts on the one assumption or the other; only a small minority of minds can persistently suspend judgment in the face of contradictory evidence. The great majority of mankind feel compelled to ascribe mysterious entities or events to supernatural beings raised above “natural law.” Religion has been the worship of supernatural beings–their propitiation, solicitation, or adoration. Most men are harassed and buffeted by life, and crave supernatural assistance when natural forces fail them; they gratefully accept faiths that give dignity and hope to their existence, and order and meaning to the world; they could hardly condone so patiently the careless brutalities of nature, the bloodshed and chicaneries of history, or their own tribulations and bereavements, if they could not trust that these are parts of an inscrutable but divine design. A cosmos without known cause or fate is an intellectual prison; we long to believe that the great drama has a just author and a noble end.
Moreover, we covet survival, and find it hard to conceive that nature should so laboriously produce man, mind, and devotion only to snuff them out in the maturity of their development. Science gives man ever greater powers but ever less significance; it improves his tools and neglects his purposes; it is silent on ultimate origins, values, and aims; it gives life and history no meaning or worth that is not canceled by death or omnivorous time. So men prefer the assurance of dogma to the diffidence of reason; weary of perplexed thought and uncertain judgment, they welcome the guidance of an authoritative church, the catharsis of the confessional, the stability of a long-established creed. Ashamed of failure, bereaved of those they loved, darkened with sin, and fearful of death, they feel themselves redeemed by divine aid, cleansed of guilt and terror, solaced and inspired with hope, and raised to a godlike and immortal destiny.
Meanwhile, religion brings subtle and pervasive gifts to society and the state. Traditional rituals soothe the spirit and bind the generations. The parish church becomes a collective home, weaving individuals into a community. The cathedral rises as the product and pride of the unified municipality. Life is embellished with sacred art, and religious music pours its mollifying harmony into the soul and the group. To a moral code uncongenial to our nature and yet indispensable to civilization, religion offers supernatural sanctions and supports: an all-seeing deity, the threat of eternal punishment, the promise of eternal bliss, and commandments of no precariously human authority but of divine origin and imperative force. Our instincts were formed during a thousand centuries of insecurity and the chase; they fit us to be violent hunters and voracious polygamists rather than peaceable citizens; their once necessary vigor exceeds present social need; they must be checked a hundred times a day, consciously or not, to make society and civilization possible. Families and states, from ages before history, have enlisted the aid of religion to moderate the barbarous impulses of men. Parents found religion helpful in taming the willful child to modesty and self-restraint; educators valued it as a precious means of disciplining and refining youth; governments long since sought its co-operation in forging social order out of the disruptive egoism and natural anarchism of men. If religion had not existed, the great legislators—Hammurabi, Moses, Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius—would have invented it. They did not have to, for it arises spontaneously and repeatedly from the needs and hopes of men.
Through a formative millennium, from Constantine to Dante, the Christian Church offered the gifts of religion to men and states. It molded the figure of Jesus into a divine embodiment of virtues by which rough barbarians might be shamed into civilization. It formulated a creed that made every man’s life a part, however modest, of a sublime cosmic drama; it bound each individual in a momentous relation with a God Who had created him, Who had spoken to him in sacred Scriptures, Who had therein given him a moral code, Who had descended from heaven to suffer ignominy and death in atonement for the sins of humanity, and Who had founded the Church as the repository of His teaching and the earthly agent of His power. Year by year the magnificent drama grew; saints and martyrs died for the creed, and bequeathed their example and their merits to the faithful. A hundred forms—a hundred thousand works—of art interpreted the drama and made it vivid even for letterless minds. Mary the Virgin Mother became “the fairest flower of all poesy,” the formative model of feminine delicacy and maternal love, the recipient of the tenderest hymns and devotions, the inspirer of majestic architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, and music. An impressive ceremony raised daily, from a million altars, the mystic and exalting solemnity of the Mass. Confession and penance purified the contrite sinner, prayer comforted and strengthened him, the Eucharist brought him into an awesome intimacy with Christ, the last sacraments cleansed and anointed him in expectation of paradise. Rarely had religion developed such artistry in its ministrations to mankind.
The Church was at her best when, by the consolations of her creed, the magic of her ritual, the nobler morality of her adherents, the courage, zeal, and integrity of her bishops, and the superior justice of her episcopal courts, she took the place vacated by the Roman Imperial government as the chief source of order and peace in the Dark Ages (approximately 524–1079 A.D.) of the Christian world. To the Church, more than to any other institution, Europe owed the resurrection of civilization in the West after the barbarian inundation of Italy, Gaul, Britain, and Spain. Her monks developed waste lands, her monasteries gave food to the poor, education to boys, lodging to travelers; her hospitals received the sick and the destitute. Her nunneries sheltered mateless women and directed their maternal impulses to social ends; for centuries the nuns alone provided schooling for girls. If classic culture was not completely lost in the illiterate flood, it was because monks, while allowing or causing many pagan manuscripts to perish, copied and preserved thousands of them, and kept alive the Greek and Latin languages in which they were written; it was in ecclesiastical libraries, at St. Gall, Fulda, Monte Cassino, and elsewhere, that the humanists of the Renaissance found precious relics of brilliant civilizations that had never heard the name of Christ. For a thousand years, from Ambrose to Wolsey, it was the Church that trained Western Europe’s teachers, scholars, judges, diplomats, and ministers of state; the medieval state rested on the Church. When the Dark Ages ended—say with the birth of Abélard—it was the Church that built the universities and the Gothic cathedrals, providing homes for the intellect, as well as for the piety, of men. Under her protection the Scholastic philosophers renewed the ancient attempt to interpret human life and destiny by reason. Through nine centuries almost all European art was inspired and financed by the Church; and even when art took a pagan color the popes of the Renaissance continued their patronage. Music in its higher forms was a daughter of the Church.
Above all, the Church at her zenith gave to the states of Europe an international moral code and government. Just as the Latin language, taught in the schools by the Church, served as a unifying medium for the scholarship, literature, science, and philosophy of diverse nations, and just as the Catholic—i.e., universal—creed and ritual gave religious unity to a Europe not yet divided into sovereign nationalities, so the Roman Church, claiming divine establishment and spiritual leadership, proposed herself as an international court, to which all rulers and states were to be morally responsible. Pope Gregory VII formulated this doctrine of a Christian Republic of Europe; the Emperor Henry IV recognized it by submitting to Gregory at Canossa (1077); a century later a stronger emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, after a long resistance, humbled himself at Venice before a weaker pope, Alexander III; and in 1198 Pope Innocent III raised the authority and prestige of the papacy to a point where for a time it seemed that Gregory’s ideal of a moral superstate had come to fulfillment.
The great dream broke on the nature of man. The administrators of the papal judiciary proved human, biased, venal, even extortionate; and the kings and peoples, also human, resented any supernational power. The growing wealth of France stimulated her pride of national sovereignty; Philip IV successfully challenged the authority of Pope Boniface VIII over the property of the French Church; the King’s emissaries imprisoned the aged Pontiff for three days at Anagni, and Boniface died soon afterward (1303). In one of its basic aspects—the revolt of secular rulers against the popes—the Reformation there and then began.