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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Reactions to “The Nature of True Virtue”

Kartik Ariyur has some thoughts about the decline of religion and how churches can reverse it.

This is in response to the article on The Nature of True Virtue. By the way, the sermon by Jonathan Edwards, along with several other famous American sermons is available in print from the Library of America under the title American Sermons.

Returning to the topic, by the decline of religion, I mean the reduction of the proportion of population with an understanding of true religion and therefore a concomitant increase in the proportion of the population lacking its guidance. By churches, I mean religious organizations of all denominations preaching true religion?by true religion I mean those precepts whose practice saves us from suffering and leads us to lasting happiness. Hence this rules out clubs devoted to wanton violence or license.

It is clear from the article that individual self-restraint fostered by religion is the prime driver of the growth of knowledge, and therefore of civilization. But the very process also results in greater numbers of individuals thinking more clearly. While there are in every age, men and women who have understood the Divine Will for their lives, the understanding of the majority is far from perfect, and will remain so (for the harvest is plenteous but the reapers are few). However, the inconsistencies in religious understanding that escaped the notice of the previous generation become obvious to the next. Thus, the interpretations of religion such as those that resulted in the Spanish Inquisition became obvious to many. And unless there is a sufficient number of religious practitioners who through their practice resolve the contradictions, and also disseminate a more consistent interpretation among the general populace, those wanting to indulge their passions will take advantage of the bewilderment of the masses, and attribute the ills of society to religion to reduce its influence on men.

Hence, because of the spiritual, intellectual and material growth of society they catalyze, there is also a need for churches to become laboratories of spiritual effort to understand the commandments in Scripture ever more precisely, and to disseminate the results of those experiments. For Scriptural Truths live on in the lives of those who demonstrate them. Great sermons such as those of Edwards or the abolitionists in the 19th century brought change in the world because the preachers practiced what they preached. In more recent times, the power of group prayer to bring the Divine response, the power of mutual service, and service to society to cultivate love, and the value of solitary contemplation and meditation are being recognized by increasing proportions of the populace.

However, analogous to those labor unions whose members want an assured income without making the efforts to constantly acquire new knowledge and skills, many priests have wanted to preserve their status, influence and power in society without continuously striving to understand and practice with ever greater precision the commandments in Scripture. Hence, priesthood has in many instances sunk to a merchandising of religion?as with some of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus, some of the Popes, and some of the churches of today that seek to hold on to their flock through entertainment instead of edification. This obviously cannot continue for long, for Mammon?s (Hollywood for example) supply of entertainment is not subject to the restraints to which church entertainment is subject.

Another consequence of the expansion of knowledge is the breakdown of the rules of thumb that ensured self-control and morality for the previous generation, which lived in simpler circumstances. In a more complex society, a correspondingly deeper understanding is required to maintain self-control. A science of self-control is therefore as much necessary as material science to sustain civilization. The science of self-control is the science of attaining Divine Love. This is because the human mind is incapable of computing the long term consequences of actions?the world is too complex to permit it. But if it is in touch with its Infinite Source through Love, it can intuit the correct actions to perform. Priestly condemnation does not make the ignorant wise, but feeling the love of God and giving it to all changes the world through teaching them to feel that love. The task of the religious is therefore to understand through meditation upon Scriptural Truth how to feel Divine Love under the various circumstances of life (thrown up by a more complex society), and then to transmit that understanding to the masses.

Pessimism about the survival of religion, and thence of civilization itself, is unfounded, for the Truth shall continue to triumph, as evidenced by the eradication of various social evils. The present decline of religion is only a transient, many of which have been witnessed by history. In an age where there is ever greater access to information, and the values instilled by religion continue to make a greater proportion of men more reasonable (even if many don?t realize it or acknowledge it) generation after generation, and the explosion of knowledge imposes tremendous stresses on individuals because of the changes it brings about, men must of necessity turn to their Maker to preserve their sanity.

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