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Three Essays on Religion

Author: 
King, Martin Luther, Jr.
Date: 
September 1, 1948 to May 31, 1951
Genre: 
Essay
Topic: 
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Education

Details

In the following three essays, King wrestles with the role of religion in modern society. In the first assignment, he calls science and religion “different though converging truths” that both “spring from the same seeds of vital human needs.” King emphasizes an awareness of God’s presence in the second document, noting that religion’s purpose “is not to perpetuate a dogma or a theology; but to produce living witnesses and testimonies to the power of God in human experience.” In the final handwritten essay King acknowledges the life-affirming nature of Christianity, observing that its adherents have consistently “looked forward for a time to come when the law of love becomes the law of life.”

“Science and Religion”

There is widespread belief in the minds of many that there is a conflict between science and religion. But there is no fundamental issue between the two. While the conflict has been waged long and furiously, it has been on issues utterly unrelated either to religion or to science. The conflict has been largely one of trespassing, and as soon as religion and science discover their legitimate spheres the conflict ceases.

Religion, of course, has been very slow and loath to surrender its claim to sovereignty in all departments of human life; and science overjoyed with recent victories, has been quick to lay claim to a similar sovereignty. Hence the conflict.

But there was never a conflict between religion and science as such. There cannot be. Their respective worlds are different. Their methods are dissimilar and their immediate objectives are not the same. The method of science is observation, that of religion contemplation. Science investigates. Religion interprets. One seeks causes, the other ends. Science thinks in terms of history, religion in terms of teleology. One is a survey, the other an outlook.

The conflict was always between superstition disguised as religion and materialism disguised as science, between pseudo-science and pseudo-religion.

Religion and science are two hemispheres of human thought. They are different though converging truths. Both science and religion spring from the same seeds of vital human needs.

Science is the response to the human need of knowledge and power. Religion is the response to the human need for hope and certitude. One is an outreaching for mastery, the other for perfection. Both are man-made, and like man himself, are hedged about with limitations. Neither science nor religion, by itself, is sufficient for man. Science is not civilization. Science is organized knowledge; but civilization which is the art of noble and progressive communal living requires much more than knowledge. It needs beauty which is art, and faith and moral aspiration which are religion. It needs artistic and spiritual values along with the intellectual.

Man cannot live by facts alone. What we know is little enough. What we are likely to know will always be little in comparison with what there is to know. But man has a wish-life which must build inverted pyramids upon the apexes of known facts. This is not logical. It is, however, psychological.

Science and religion are not rivals. It is only when one attempts to be the oracle at the others shrine that confusion arises. Whan the scientist from his laboratory, on the basis of alleged scientific knowledge presumes to issue pronouncements on God, on the origin and destiny of life, and on man's place in the scheme of things he is [passing?] out worthless checks. When the religionist delivers ultimatums to the scientist on the basis of certain cosomologies embedded in the sacred text then he is a sorry spectacle indeed.

When religion, however, on the strength of its own postulates, speaks to men of God and the moral order of the universe, when it utters its prophetic burden of justice and love and holiness and peace, then its voice is the voice of the eternal spiritual truth, irrefutable and invincible.,

“The Purpose of Religion”

What is the purpose of religion?1 Is it to perpetuate an idea about God? Is it totally dependent upon revelation? What part does psychological experience play? Is religion synonymous with theology?

Harry Emerson Fosdick says that the most hopeful thing about any system of theology is that it will not last.2 This statement will shock some. But is the purpose of religion the perpetuation of theological ideas? Religion is not validated by ideas, but by experience.

This automatically raises the question of salvation. Is the basis for salvation in creeds and dogmas or in experience. Catholics would have us believe the former. For them, the church, its creeds, its popes and bishops have recited the essence of religion and that is all there is to it. On the other hand we say that each soul must make its own reconciliation to God; that no creed can take the place of that personal experience. This was expressed by Paul Tillich when he said, “There is natural religion which belongs to man by nature. But there is also a revealed religion which man receives from a supernatural reality.”3 Relevant religion therefore, comes through revelation from God, on the one hand; and through repentance and acceptance of salvation on the other hand.4 Dogma as an agent in salvation has no essential place.

This is the secret of our religion. This is what makes the saints move on in spite of problems and perplexities of life that they must face. This religion of experience by which man is aware of God seeking him and saving him helps him to see the hands of God moving through history.

Religion has to be interpreted for each age; stated in terms that that age can understand. But the essential purpose of religion remains the same. It is not to perpetuate a dogma or theology; but to produce living witnesses and testimonies to the power of God in human experience.

[signed] M. L. King Jr.5

“The Philosophy of Life Undergirding Christianity and the Christian Ministry”

Basically Christianity is a value philosophy. It insists that there are eternal values of intrinsic, self-evidencing validity and worth, embracing the true and the beautiful and consummated in the Good. This value content is embodied in the life of Christ. So that Christian philosophy is first and foremost Christocentric. It begins and ends with the assumption that Christ is the revelation of God.6

We might ask what are some of the specific values that Christianity seeks to conserve? First Christianity speaks of the value of the world. In its conception of the world, it is not negative; it stands over against the asceticisms, world denials, and world flights, for example, of the religions of India, and is world-affirming, life affirming, life creating. Gautama bids us flee from the world, but Jesus would have us use it, because God has made it for our sustenance, our discipline, and our happiness.7 So that the Christian view of the world can be summed up by saying that it is a place in which God is fitting men and women for the Kingdom of God.

Christianity also insists on the value of persons. All human personality is supremely worthful. This is something of what Schweitzer has called “reverence for life.”8 Hunan being must always be used as ends; never as means. I realize that there have been times that Christianity has short at this point. There have been periods in Christians history that persons have been dealt with as if they were means rather than ends. But Christianity at its highest and best has always insisted that persons are intrinsically valuable. And so it is the job of the Christian to love every man because God love love. We must not love men merely because of their social or economic position or because of their cultural contribution, but we are to love them because God they are of value to God.

Christianity is also concerned about the value of life itself. Christianity is concerned about the good life for every child, man, and woman and child. This concern for the good life and the value of life is no where better expressed than in the words of Jesus in the gospel of John: “I came that you might have life and that you might have it more abundantly.”9 This emphasis has run throughout the Christian tradition. Christianity has always had a concern for the elimination of disease and pestilence. This is seen in the great interest that it has taken in the hospital movement.

Christianity is concerned about increasing value. The whole concept of the kingdom of God on earth expressing a concern for increasing value. We need not go into a dicussion of the nature and meaning of the Kingdom of God, only to say that Christians throughout the ages have held tenaciouly to this concept. They have looked forward for a time to come when the law of love becomes the law of life.

In the light of all that we have said about Christianity as a value philosophy, where does the ministry come into the picture?10

1. King may have also considered the purpose of religion in a Morehouse paper that is no longer extant, as he began a third Morehouse paper, “Last week we attempted to discuss the purpose of religion” (King, “The Purpose of Education,” September 1946-February 1947, in Papers 1:122).

2. “Harry Emerson Fosdick” in American Spiritual Autobiographies: Fifteen Self-Portraits, ed. Louis Finkelstein (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), p. 114: “The theology of any generation cannot be understood, apart from the conditioning social matrix in which it is formulated. All systems of theology are as transient as the cultures they are patterned from.”

3. King further developed this theme in his dissertation: “[Tillich] finds a basis for God's transcendence in the conception of God as abyss. There is a basic inconsistency in Tillich's thought at this point. On the one hand he speaks as a religious naturalist making God wholly immanent in nature. On the other hand he speaks as an extreme supernaturalist making God almost comparable to the Barthian ‘wholly other’” (King, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” 15 April 1955, in Papers 2:535).

4. Commas were added after the words “religion” and “salvation.”

5. King folded this assignment lengthwise and signed his name on the verso of the last page.

6. King also penned a brief outline with this title (King, “The Philosophy of Life Undergirding Christianity and the Christian Ministry,” Outline, September 1948-May 1951). In the outline, King included the reference “see Enc. Of Religion p. 162.” This entry in An Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Vergilius Ferm (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946) contains a definition of Christianity as “Christo-centric” and as consisting “of eternal values of intrinsic, self-evidencing validity and worth, embracing the true and the beautiful and consummated in the Good.” King kept this book in his personal library.

7. Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563-ca. 483 BCE) was the historical Buddha.

8. For an example of Schweitzer's use of the phrase “reverence for life,” see Albert Schweitzer, “The Ethics of Reverence for Life,” Christendom 1 (1936): 225-239.

9. John 10:10.

10. In his outline for this paper, King elaborated: “The Ministry provides leadership in helping men to recognize and accept the eternal values in the Xty religion. a. The necessity of a call b. The necessity for disinterested love c. The [necessity] for moral uprightness” (King, “Philosophy of Life,” Outline, September 1948-May 1951).

Source: 

CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file.