Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

National Religions

SOCIOLOGY IS STILL A TEENAGER among the sciences. It went through an atheistic phase when many sociologists implied that religion performed no useful function. Temples could be replaced by community centres, psychologists must be the prophets, psychiatrists would hear confessions, and man's salvation needed only town planning and welfare economics to usher in the millennium. Now Sociology has gone religious. The integrating effects of religion are preached as the panacea for slums, and suburbs, and jungle tribes. The problem is that few of the newer sociologists have ever learned to distinguish among the many forms of religion. Religion is no more homogeneous than liquid. To say that liquid is good is no doubt true, but until we learn to distinguish between water and gin, and castor oil and weed killer, we have dangerously little knowledge. We all agree that some expressions of religion are socially valuable, but Marx's indictment was not without foundation. Kings, courtiers and commercial magnates have always prescribed traditional religion as a sedative for unruly people. There have been very few really great social crimes without religion to confer the needed respectability. To grow up into an adult science Sociology therefore needs to learn to label, test and discriminate, and it cannot escape value judgments between one form of religion and another. Our task in this chapter is to label some national religions, and make preliminary observations about their relation to Christianity.

To be classed as national a religion must touch every significant area of national life. To be stable it must not obstruct the aspirations of the more vigorous elements of society. It should provide for the whole spectrum of religious needs, and yet maintain peace among the differences. Obviously to perform these functions in a stagnating situation is hard enough, but what religion can cope with industrial revolution, layered suburbs, refugees, population explosions, or the aftermath of civil war? The Lama religion of Tibet kept that country for centuries in a static feudal condition till the Chinese Communists took over, but what religion can we prescribe for them now? What about the Congo, or Vietnam, Harlem, or Detroit? The Church of England continues to arrange coronations in Westminster Abbey, and feudal titles are in order for bishops in the House of Lords, but with five per cent occasional church attendance is it any wonder that many question the concept of an established church? Obviously there are no easy answers to such questions. We must begin, however, with national religions in the more stable situations of history.

Ancient Civilizations

There are first of all the priesthoods of Sumer and Egypt which we looked at in the second chapter. Sociologically these give us very little information because their histories are limited to the court. Priests become significant only when they serve to glorify or oppose the king. From these ancient civilizations we know nothing of how the common people prayed in their homes, or what they did for marriages and births and deaths in their families, or whether they consulted holy men, or witch-doctors, or astrologers in difficult decisions. The religions were evidently both stable and national, but all we know is that they helped the king in war and kept the people in their place. The same may be said of the Mayas and Aztecs of Central and South America.

The Roman Empire

With Rome we have the data for a more detailed observation. The original sacrificial religion of Rome was at the heart of the nation's life. With the introduction of emperor worship the direction of worship was changed, but the temples and sacrifices continued to perform the same function. Because of the concept of one Roman citizenship extending to include many nations it was also necessary to include foreign cults as acceptable forms of devotion. This was done by licensing them as religiones licitae, just as the British parliament eventually had to license the non-conformist bodies as acceptable together with the established Church of England. Among the various mystery religions and oriental cults of the Roman Empire Judaism also became a `licensed' religion.

This was why Christianity was able to hide under its Jewish shadow till the emperors decided that this new religion just had to be made 'illicit'. It was the inclusivism of Roman religion which gave it the flexibility to provide for the religious needs of so many for so long. A Roman gentleman could address himself to any god, he could read philosophy with the Greek philosophers, practise Stoic, or Epicurean, or any other system of ethics, experience the mysterium tremendum of the mysteries, or belong to a variety of brotherhoods for a hundred purposes. There would have been no possible objection to including Christianity among the many, but that was a position the early Christians could not accept. Christ had to be the only Lord, and even the token sacrifice at a national altar was impossible. In any case Daniel had prophesied that Christ's kingdom was going to shatter the Roman Empire.[1] Evidently loyalty to Christ, who claimed more than any earthly king, was incompatible with a national religion centred on emperor worship, and so a war to the death was inevitable. The Romans had the sword; the Christians had the Sword of the Spirit. Within 200 years Roman emperors began kneeling to the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Japanese Shinto

A second clear example of a national religion is Japanese Shinto. At the centre was State Shinto with its emperor worship and the great national shrines. In addition to these every Japanese was free to frequent the local village shrines, or experience the exhilaration of a pilgrimage with a mountain sect, or seek purification from a group which practised asceticism or lustrations to wash away sin. Confucianism with its ethical principles was admitted from China, and Buddhism eventually established itself in japan after it had already been rejected by India. The Samurai, or 'gentlemen warriors', combined Confucianism, Zen Buddhism and State Shinto into a system called 'Bushido', which created the image of the ideal warrior-knight in Japan. The image and result was little different from the medieval Christian knights, or the gentlemen from the playing-fields of Eton who won the battle of Waterloo. Faith-healing sects arose in the nineteenth century[2] and the equivalent of Christian Science appeared at the same time as in America.[3]

It is interesting that one by one these new movements had to obtain government recognition, and like the religiones licitae of Rome, Shintoism had the wisdom to provide the wide variety of religious choice which its people demanded.

When Japan was defeated in 1945 and the emperor was persuaded to renounce his traditional divinity, many felt that Shintoism had been given its death-blow. A study of history should, however, have made it obvious that a national religion is not necessarily tied to emperor worship. Today in Japan the national shrines are again frequented, and Shinto flourishes with an even wider array of alternatives, including a few Christian ones. The danger to Shinto is not the abdication of the Mikado from his place as the centre of the system, but the pressures of growing cities and ruthless industrialization which crush all traditional religion out of existence.

Europe And The West

For our third example let us examine the typical national religion in Europe just before Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Schlosskirche door at Wittenberg. Christianity certainly touched all areas of national life. Kings were crowned by the church, the universities were Christian institutions, people could turn to parish priests, or wandering friars, or a wide variety of monks and nuns for spiritual help. Birth, marriage, sickness, death, all had Christian connotations. As the Renaissance progressed there was a surprising freedom to read and philosophize, and for those who sought private piety there were the writings of the mystics. A bit more risky was the reading of Wyclif and Hus, and would-be martyrs could join the Lollards.

The great strength of the Roman church had been to make each new spiritual movement into the equivalent of a religio licita. When Francis of Assisi organized his radical Christian brothers, the pope had the wisdom to license the New Franciscan order. (We may note in passing that the Church of England refused to regularize the Methodists five centuries later.) A few years after the Franciscans, the Dominicans were licensed to provide a more intellectual type of religious diet in the church. Unfortunately the popes became more rigid when they refused to regularize the Lollards. Even in 1517 it is possible that Luther could have been contained in the national church if he had been encouraged to form an order to preach and translate the Scriptures. Jesus Christ had warned that his movement would generate new wine, and new wine could not be contained in the old bottles. The concept of a national church is possible only if every vintage of new wine is gracefully and wisely allowed to have its own bottles.

Unfortunately the Reformation churches, which tried to be national, never attained this wisdom. Luther was right in insisting on the right to preach, and Calvin produced masterly theology. But to insist, as in Geneva, that a whole people must conform to Calvin's theology and piety was surely unreasonable. It is the business of a Christian government to provide justice and mercy and whatever freedom is possible without impinging on the freedom of others. Grace and faith, however, are not matters for legislation. In England Queen Elizabeth the First was right in completing the reformation of the church, but she was evidently wrong in forbidding the Puritans to have the simpler forms that they desired. It took Protestants another four centuries to see that true Christianity must permit religious freedom, because true faith can never be coerced.

It was only natural that the United States of America should give the lead in providing the freedom for all types of Christianity, and even other religions, to flourish. In one sense we might seem here to be furthest from the concept of a national church. The rulings of the United States High Court seem almost to favour 'freedom from religion' as opposed to the 'freedom of religion' in the Constitution. On the other hand, if our definition of a national religion is that it must touch every area of national life, must provide for a wide range of religious needs, and should not obstruct the aspirations of the more vigorous elements of society, then it is possible that the vague Christian civilization of North America is more truly a national religion than any we have considered. Evidently such a national religion cannot in any sense be equated with the gospel Of Jesus Christ, but one can welcome the freedom which exists for any man to propagate whatever religious truth or way he has discovered.

Freedom Of Religion

If there is to be freedom of religion, there must be the freedom both to convert and to be converted. Conversion means changing from one 'way' to another, and we have no right to limit the direction of change. This means that if there is such a thing as a Christian national religion, it must provide the freedom for all other viewpoints and sects to flourish, provided of course that they do not impinge on the freedom of others. Everybody believes in religious freedom when they are in the minority, but the acid test is whether we are so convinced of the inherent truth of our beliefs that we can willingly allow our own children and other people freely to examine all others. This does not mean a permissive education which teaches nothing, on the theory that children should find out their religion for themselves. It does require such a clear teaching of basic Christian truth that Christians can be free to examine all other viewpoints on the theory that truth, like light, is never extinguished, by any amount of darkness.

I have not answered the question which we asked at the beginning of the chapter. What religion can cope with the social disintegration of our modern world? We have seen that a national religion in the old sense of a traditional system cannot do this. In any case modern man will not accept a religion that requires the support of magistrates, or social pressure, or obscurantist walls to protect it. On the one hand we need a dynamic adaptability to face the tragic and revolutionary situations of our confusing world. There must be sufficient richness and variety to meet the many different aspects of religious need. At the same time there must be such inherent confidence in its truth that it will be intellectually strong enough to permit all its rivals to flourish if they can.

Adaptability, richness and truth; all three are needed if a religion is to meet the needs of a nation, and all three are being tested in the twentieth century. Fossilized forms of religion have already disintegrated. Narrow, dull and bourgeois religion is losing by sheer lack of interest. Religions without the courage of truth have no claims on thinking men. At this point history can take us no further. History has no courage. It is truth that nerves a man and a people to live, and act, and die. The love of truth is therefore the subject of our second section.

Chapter 8...


1. Daniel 2:44; Revelation 17, 18, 19.

2. Konko Kyo, founded by Kawate Bunjiro (1814-83).

3. Tenri Kyo, founded by Maekawa Miki (1798-1887) who published her book in 1875, the year of Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy's book on Christian Science. Tenri Kyo was recognized by the Mikado in 1887.

Chapter 8...