Chalcedon Position Paper No. 69, December 1985
The writer, Michael Hamburger, in his poems (Weather and Season, 1963), declares at one point, surveying the seeming meaninglessness as well as the evils in the world, “Amid such omens how dare we live?” In another poem, he says, “How mind abhors a circle. Let there be laws.” Countless other writers in varying ways give witness to the need for a governing religious faith to provide meaning to life.
The critical problem is, which religion? Fallen man, left to himself, recognizes the need for order and meaning; he knows that a religion, a faith for living, is a necessity. Because of his fallen nature, however, man creates religions in his own image, in terms of his revolt against God and his desire to redefine justice in terms of his own will. As a result, the world is full of false religions.
Apart from the supernatural grace of God, man cannot know true religion; he will only reproduce and refine the false religion of the Fall, his desire to be his own god, knowing or determining good and evil, right and wrong, and establishing all law for himself (Gen. 3:5).
The problem is further complicated by the fact that, as converted men, we often carry unconverted areas of thinking into our lives in Christ. The theme song of many seems to be, “Partially converted, Lord, I am Thine. Heal and make me, partially Thine.” Too many want all that Christ can give together with all that they want. False religions are served by this fact. We cannot say, “Thy will be done, O Lord, except when I want mine.” (In many churches, too, it can be said that every heart is converted, but very few pocketbooks are. Ask any pastor.)
In brief, people want religion and they want salvation on their terms. We can view religion as our life-support system, or as the way to glorify God and to serve and enjoy Him forever.
Prominent among the false religions of history is politics. Now, civil government is a Biblical concern and an area of ministry. Paul declares that all rulers are primarily and essentially “ministers” or “deacons” of God (Rom. 13:4). Civil government is a ministry of justice and an important area of Christian service.
The problem arises when men see the state as the way to social salvation. The messianic state then begins to claim jurisdiction over every area of life and thought as the legitimate lawmaker and savior thereof. The modern state everywhere seeks this totalitarian (and humanistic) goal, and the result is an accelerating tyranny. In church and state cases, I am increasingly hearing judges insist that no religious freedom is at stake, merely a question of compliance or noncompliance with an act of the state, a regulation, or a law. The premise of the state as justice is also increasingly prominent. The state has at times been just, but history gives more evidences of statist injustice.
Liberals and radicals see the answer to current inequities as more power to the state, and this solution is powerfully furthered by most of the media. The statist solution is seen as morally correct, so that all who challenge the growth of statist power are somehow insensitive and morally wrong. In the minds of many, a link is being forged between true morality and the increasing powers of the state.
Is the alternative the solution? Was Jefferson right in declaring that the best government is the least government? Given the growing and oppressive powers of the state, it is tempting to think so. Without all the oppressive regulating and taxing agencies, how much easier our lives would be! Or would they? I once lived for some years in an area of very minimal state-policing powers, and the results were fearful. The more sinful man is, the more dangerous he is, with statism or without statism. Statism is a false religion which sees the state as god walking on earth. But to see a limited state as the answer is to forget that sin comes essentially from man, not primarily from the state! The old proverb is true: you can’t make a good omelette with bad eggs. Whether you have a big omelette or a small omelette, a power state or a very limited state, bad eggs are bad eggs, and bad men are bad men. It is false religion to believe that a rearrangement of the state apparatus will give us better men.
This is definitely not to say that it is irrelevant what kind of civil government we should have. It would be morally wrong, too, for us to say that civil government is not an area of Christian concern and calling. Rather, just as our place is under God and His law, so too is the place of civil government. Politics is not the means to salvation but an area where the godly can exercise dominion under God.
Another false religion of our time is economics. There are all too many who believe in economic solutions to the world’s problems. This is not to deny that many of our problems are in the sphere of economics. However, no more than the fact that a man has troubles with his job means that the job is at fault, do problems in the economic sphere necessarily have an economic cause.
All too many intellectuals of the modern era have held and believed that socialism or communism is the solution to man’s economic problems. The fact that every socialist state is a disaster does not trouble these people. In their view, if men would only try their brand of socialism, all would be well. In our time, economics is an area of particularly fanatical beliefs and believers.
There is here also an alternative, the free market. Very clearly, history does give us a remarkable account of the social advances brought in by the free market; it is one of history’s more remarkable stories. Given the results, why have men turned against the free market? Is it possible (perish the thought!) that man can be illogical? (One is tempted to say, the better our mind, the greater our capacities to be illogical! Can any equal intellectuals in bad logic? Ability magnifies all our errors.)
But men have again and again destroyed the free market and all its beneficent products. This should not surprise us. A free market requires free men, and the lovers of slavery demolish every threat of freedom. Economics cannot be free if men do not cherish and value freedom.
For me, an unforgettable recollection from the early 1960s is the lecture by an economist to a university audience on freedom. This scholar’s book on liberty is still in print. He was shocked when the first question raised by a student was this: “What’s so important about freedom?” The student regarded freedom as of minimal value, and almost all the students agreed.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that most men are not hypocrites when they profess to want freedom. Freedom, like religion, is more than a matter of verbal profession; it is a characteristic of our lives. Freedom does not stand alone; it goes hand in hand with other things such as responsibility, the courage to face risks, and more. The riskless life is a slave life, and the welfare state is a slave state. A slave people will create a slave state, and no free market will be other than destroyed by them.
Thus, economics, like politics, can become a false religion if we believe that economic arrangements can create the good society. Here, as in every other sphere, there is a right and a wrong economically, but the success of good economics depends on good men.
Christians as free men in Christ have a calling in economics, but it is an area for dominion, not a means to salvation. A good society begins with men in a good relationship to Jesus Christ who then in terms of the Lord exercise dominion in every sphere. To neglect economics is deadly dangerous; to expect from it what only God can supply is a sin.
Moreover, we can add that the church is no more the exclusive sphere of religion than are politics and economics. The primary locale of religion is in the life of man. Our life and our faith must be inseparable and united. Our faith must be more than what we believe; it must also be what we live.
Neither politics nor economics have given us nor can give us world peace. Bad eggs never make good omelettes, and at the heart of our world’s problems is the fallen heart of man.
Another false religion is modern education. Here, too, we encounter amazing fanaticism. Many hold that the solution to the world’s problems is education. Are there sexual problems among youth? Education has the answer, we are told, and the result is sex education. (Really now, the subject of sex deserves better than what statist schools are doing with it! This is no laughing matter, say the experts, so they are turning it into a crying matter!) Is crime increasing? We need to spend more money on education, and then we can solve the problem. Education has for many become the great way of salvation for man and society.
Going back to basic education is surely good, but not of itself. Phonics will again teach children to read, but is a barbarian who reads any the less a barbarian? Knowledge is clearly good, but has knowledge made our professors any better than the rest of the population? Do professors have a lower percentage of moral and mental problems than do farmers?
We cannot neglect education, and the works of a liberal, Jonathan Kozol, have given us a telling report and analysis on how bad our schools really are. But education per se is not a way of salvation; it is a marvelous tool for faith and living when governed by a sound premise, but it can be and commonly is a false religion.
Certainly for Horace Mann and his associates it was a religion, and a messianic one. Mann expected public schools to create a better man and a better world. He was confident, with all the confidence of those early New England Unitarians, that his kind of school would eliminate crime, and, in time, save the world. We live in the shambles of the world created by the Horace Manns of the past two centuries, and it is not a very pleasant prospect. Clearly, education has often been and still is a false religion.
There are so many kinds of false religions — more than we can take the space to discuss — but we should mention art. Many are convinced that art will civilize and elevate man, and, in many cities, the arts have become the new religion for many prominent women. How eagerly they work “to make the world a better place to live in” with their sponsorship of the arts. I once heard a woman speak of the ghetto classes in painting and dancing she and others were sponsoring; she was sure it would create better children and bring culture to the ghetto. Well, some children were no doubt entertained, and perhaps an occasional child found a calling, but cultural activities become false religions when we seek to transform society through them.
False religions all expect more of man than man can ever give; they are men at work, and their works manifest their limitations and their sin. The meaning of true religion comes out clearly in the last question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is the meaning of the word ‘Amen’? Amen means: So shall it truly and surely be, for my prayer is much more certainly heard of God than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of Him.” How intensely we sometimes desire and pray for certain things! Yet we are told that God’s hearing our prayers, and His concern for us, far, far exceeds any desires on our part. Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of that fact. In true religion, more power and wisdom are always at work in us and around us than we can ever fathom or imagine.