“The Tragedy of Disunion,” by Umphrey Lee
October 14, 1946
The recent discussion in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the proposed union with the Presbyterians is not to be judged by outsiders; but it emphasized the tragic position of Christianity in the twentieth century. The tragedy is not that there are many churches: the creation of a few great ecclesiastical bodies might raise more problems than it would solve. Nor is the tragedy that theologians disagree: human minds can never be brought to a common level unless it be the level of mediocrity. The frightening danger of our disunion is that we face a world—at least the Western world—that is so largely united.
On the face of it, such a statement seems absurd. For the newspaper headlines testify to the cleavages between nation and nation, between race and race. Yet there is a unity in the world outside of the Church. And this unity in the Western world is agreement in a secularism which is far wider and deeper than many of us realize.
The secularism to which the Church is accustomed is partly that of a few intellectuals who have decided that the Christian’s God does not exist, and partly that of the masses of the people who are preoccupied with the pride of life, the lust of the flesh or the deceitfulness of riches. To understand the extent and nature of modern secularism, we must recognize that it is not confined to the few nor is it merely the attitude of the worldling. Today millions do not believe that Christianity is relevant to modern life, and yet these millions are concerned about many things that are also of interest to Christians. The attitude of so many in the modern world is owing to many causes, but one is seldom mentioned. The Church faces masses who during the last two centuries have been taught that the Church is not alone in possessing ultimate sanctions for its message. Economic and political programs have been proposed with the claim that they are rooted in the nature of things. The classical economists talked about economic “laws.” The advocates of progress by scientific development often assumed, if unconsciously, that this progress was inevitable. Today a large part of the Western world holds to an economic and social program which it is assured is borne up on the wave of the future.
The idea of automatic progress has been attacked often enough, but the attackers sometimes forget that the substitution of human planning for automatic progress does not change the picture radically, if the planning is proposed on the ground that it is in the line of foreordained development. The appeal may be to psychology, to an interpretation of history, to a racial theory. Men may be urged to action and to planning. But the argument is that man’s nature is such, his history develops in such a way, his racial characteristics are so, that this kind of planning is assured of success. In the language of another day, the stars in their courses fight for them.
Modern secularism is not a casual development of recent years. It is rooted in two centuries of Western history. Men have not so much rejected the Church as they have simply grown away from it. One need not exaggerate the extent of this secularism, but it is all about us. A single great nation may try to do away with religion; but millions in other nations simply do without it. Not since the young Church faced a barbarian world have Christians been surrounded by such indifference. Intellectuals may believe that man stands alone, and that he is his own salvation. But they are no more secular in their outlook than the millions who have a superstitious confidence that their party or their group is somehow predestined to rule the earth.
This is the tragedy of our disunion. When the Western peoples took for granted that the Christian world view was valid, even when they assumed that it was possible, the churches might well be concerned with the question, who shall go up and occupy the land? Now, with so little prospect that the Christian pattern of life and thought will be predominant in any world that we or our children will know, there is something pathetic about our concern as to who shall bear the evangel that so few will hear. The present proposal for union of two great Christian churches only illustrates the problem. It may be, indeed, that these two should not unite: on this many of us cannot speak with knowledge. But the world is slipping away from us. Before this fact, schemes for ecclesiastical changes, voices calling for the Church to insist upon this or that application of the gospel (to say nothing of jockeying for a place on the right hand or the left) all seem unreal.
No one doubts the importance of our convictions, nor duty to maintain the purity of the gospel as we see it; but one can at least dream—if it is nothing but a dream—of a union to assert the Christian view of God and of man, to witness to the spiritual meaning of life and to the inseparable connection of such a world view with any message of hope to our time which is more than ephemeral. Certainly, when the enemy is at the gate, there is little time for internal conflicts. If there be those who cannot go up to the battle of the Lord until they have first settled their affairs at home, it might be well for others to bid them Godspeed, and go on about their business.
Umphrey Lee (1893–1958) became a Methodist pastor after earning a BA from Trinity University, an MA from Southern Methodist University, and a PhD from Columbia University. He established the Wesley Bible Chair at the University of Texas, and in 1923 he became the pastor of Highland Park Methodist Church on the Southern Methodist University campus, where he taught homiletics. From 1937 to 1939, he was dean of the School of Religion at Vanderbilt University before serving as president of Southern Methodist University from 1939 to 1954. He was the first Chancellor of Southern Methodist University from 1954 to 1958. Several schools are named after him.