Social Organization

Chapter 32: Disorganization: The Church

Charles Horton Cooley

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IN religion, too, our day is one of confusion in institutions and falling back upon human nature. The most notable books of the day in this field are, first of all, studies in religious psychology. Perceiving that the question has come to be one of the very being and function of religion, they ignore the discussion of particular doctrines, polities or sacraments, and seek a foundation in the nature of the human mind.

I do not wish to follow these researches in detail: their general outcome is reassuring. They seem to show that religion is a need of human nature, centring, perhaps, in the craving to make life seem rational and good. As thought it is belief regarding the power underlying life and our relation to it; our conceptions of God and of other divine agents serving as symbols—changing like other symbols with the general state of thought—of this hidden reality. As feeling it is a various body of passion and sentiment associated with this belief; such as the sense of sin and of reconciliation; dread, awe, reverence, love and

(373) faith. And religious action is such as expresses, in one way or another, this sort of thought and feeling.

Like all our higher life, religion lives only by communication and influence. Its sentiments are planted in instinct, but the soil in which they grow is some sort of fostering community life. Higher thought—call it intellectual, spiritual, or what you will—does not come to us by any short and easy road, its nature being to require preparation and outlay, to be the difficult and culminating product of human growth. And this is quite as much a growth of the social order as of individuals, for the individual cut off from that scaffolding of suggestion that the aspiration of the race has gradually prepared for him is sure to be lawless and sensual: his spiritual impulse can hardly be more than a futile unrest, just as the untaught impulse of speech in a deaf person produces only inarticulate cries. Much has been said of natural religion; but if this means a religion achieved de novo by the individual mind, there is no such thing, all religion and religious sentiment being more or less distinctly traditional.

We find, then, that the religious life always rests upon a somewhat elaborate social structure—not necessarily a church, but something which does in fact what the church aims to do. The higher sentiments now possible to us are subtly evoked and nourished by language, music, ritual and other time-wrought symbols. And even more obviously are ideas—of God and of the larger being, of religious observance, government and duty—matters of communal and secular growth.

The root problem of the church—as, in a sense, of all

(374) organization—is to get the use of the symbol without the abuse. We cannot hold our minds to the higher life without a form of thought; and forms of thought come by traditions and usages which are apt to enchain the spirit. "Woe unto thee thou stream of human custom"; cries St. Augustine, "Who shall stay thy course? How long shall it be before thou art dried up ? How long wilt thou carry down the sons of Eve into that huge and formidable ocean, which even those who are embarked on the Tree can scarce pass over?"[1]

The iconoclastic fervor against formalism that usefully breaks out from time to time should not make us imagine that religion can dispense with institutions. There is in religious thought at present much of a kind of anarchism which, in the justifiable revolt against the pretensions of authority, is inclined to overlook the importance of tradition and structure. Perhaps we may cite Emerson as an anarchist of this sort; he saw the necessity of institutions, but was inclined by temperament and experience to distrust them, and to dwell almost wholly upon freedom.

Is it not the fact, however, that the progress of religion has been less in the perception of new truth than in bringing it home to the many by organization? There is perhaps little in religious thought that was not adequately expressed by occasional thinkers millenniums ago; the gain has been in working this thought into the corporate life. The great religions—Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Mohammedanism—are nothing if not systems; that is to say, although based on primary needs of human nature, their very being as widespread religions consists

(375) in a social structure, adapted to the changing state of society, through which these needs are met and fostered. Thus the appeal of Christianity to the human mind may be said to have rested, in all periods partly on the symbolic power of a personality—so idealized and interpreted as to be in effect a system as well as a man—and partly on a changing but always elaborate structure of doctrines, ritual, polity, preaching and the like. Take away these symbols and there is nothing distinctive left. And if the whole is to go on, the system of symbols, again renewed, must go on, too. No more in religion than in any other phase of life can we have an inside without an outside, essence without form.

The existing creeds, formulated in a previous state of thought, have lost that relative truth they once had and are now, for most of us, not creeds at all, since they are incredible; but creeds of some sort we must have. A creed may, perhaps, be defined as a settled way of thinking about matters which are beyond the reach of positive knowledge, but which the mind must and will think of in some way—notably, of course, about the larger life and our relation to it. For the majority, who are not metaphysicians, it is mere waste and distraction to struggle unaided with these problems; we need a chart in this sea, a practicable form of thought to live by. That competent men should devise such forms of thought, consistent with the state of knowledge, and that other symbols should grow up about them, is as natural and useful as any other kind of invention. We need to believe, and we shall believe what we can. John Addington Symonds declared

(376) that "health of soul results from possessing a creed," and his own sufferings in trying to make one out of the scattered materials of his time are typical of those of a great number of sensitive minds, many of whom have been harassed into despair and degradation.[2] Without some regular and common service of the ideal, something in the way of prayer and worship, pessimism and selfishness are almost sure to encroach upon us.

Those who teach truth in its mere abstractness can never take much hold of the general mind, and success awaits a teaching which is intellectually sound (that is, consistent with the clearer thought of the day), and at the same time able, by a wealth of fit symbols, to make itself at home in all sorts of plain minds. And it is just this that is apt to be destructively wanting in a time of intellectual and social change.

Why is it that the symbol encroaches and persists beyond its function? Evidently just because it is external, capable of imitation and repetition without fresh thought and life, so that all that is inert and mechanical clings to it. All dull and sensual persons, all dull and sensual moods in any person, see the form and not the substance. The spirit, the idea, the sentiment, is plainly enough the reality when one is awake to see it, but how easily we lose our hold upon it and come to think that the real is the tangible. The symbol is always at command: we can always attend church, go to mass, recite prayers, contribute money, and the like; but kindness, hope, reverence, humility, courage, have no string attached to them; they come and go as the spirit moves; there is no insurance on them.

(377) Just as in the schools we teach facts and formulas rather than meanings, because the former can be received by all and readily tested, so religion becomes external in seeking to become universal

lt is perhaps hardly necessary to recall the application of this to Christianity. Jesus himself had no system: he felt and taught the human sentiments that underly religion and the conduct that expresses them. The Sermon on the Mount appears paradoxical only to sluggish, sensual, formal states of mind and the institutions that embody them. In our times of clearer insight it is good sense and good psychology, expressing that enlargement of the individual to embrace the life of others which takes place at such times. This natural Christianity, however, i; insecure in the best people, and most of us have only a fleeting experience of it; so the teachers who wished to make a popular system, valid for all sorts of persons and moods, were led to vulgarize it by grounding it on miracles and mystic authority and enforcing it by sensual rewards and punishments.

The perennial truth of what Christ taught comes precisely from the fact that it was not a system, but an intuition and expression of higher sentiments the need of which i~ a central and enduring element in our best experience. It is this that has made it possible, in every age, to go back to his life and words and find them still alive and potent, fit to vitalize renewed systems. The system makers did well, too, but their work was transient.

A good system of symbols is one which, on the whole, stands to the group or to the individual for a higher life:

(378) merit in this matter being relative to the particular state of mind that the symbol is to serve. It is quite true that—

"Each age must worship its own thought of God,
More or less earthy, clarifying still
With subsidence continuous of the dregs."[3]

Crude men must have crude symbols—even " rod or candy for child-minded men " [4]—but these should be educational, leading up from lower forms of thought to higher. A system that keeps men in sensualism when they are capable of rising above it, or in dogmatism when they are ready to think, is as bad as one that does not reach their minds at all.

At the present time all finality in religious formulas is discredited philosophically by the idea of evolution and of the consequent relativity of all higher truth, while, practically, free discussion has so accustomed people to conflicting views that the exclusive and intolerant advocacy of dogma is scarcely possible to the intelligent. It is true, of course, that philosophical breadth and free discussion have flourished before, only to be swept under by the forces making for authority; but they were never so rooted in general conditions—of communication and personal freedom—as they are now. It seems fairly certain that the formulas of religion will henceforward be held with at least a subconsciousness of their provisional character.

The creeds of the future are likely, also, to be simple. In all institutions there is nowadays a tendency to exchange formulas for principles, as being more flexible and so

(379) more enduring. The nearer you can get to universal human nature without abandoning concreteness the better. There is coming to be a clearer distinction of functions between metaphysics and worship, which may enable each to be enjoyed to the utmost without being unnecessarily mixed with the other.

The less intellectual a religious symbol is the better, because it less confines the mind. Personality is the best symbol of all; and after that music, art, poetry, festivity and ceremony are more enduring and less perilous symbols than formulas of belief. Sentiments change like ideas, but not so much and not so evidently; and the essential exercises of religion for the mass of men are those which awaken higher sentiment, especially those good works, in which, chiefly, the founder of Christianity and his real followers have expressed their religious impulse. These also are symbols, and the most potent and least illusive of all.

It is indeed a general truth that sentiment is nearer to the core of life than definable thought. As the rim of a wheel whirls about its centre, so ideas and institutions whirl about the pivotal sentiments of human nature. To define a thing is to institutionize it, to draw it forth from the pregnant obscurity of the soul and show just how it appears in the transient color of our particular way of thinking. Definitions are, in their nature, short-lived.

We need religion, probably, as much as any age can have needed it. The prevalent confusion, "the tumult of the time disconsolate," is felt in every mind not wholly inert as a greater or less distraction of thought, feeling and will;

(380) and we need to be taught how to live with joy and calm in the presence of inevitable perplexities. A certain natural phlegm is a great advantage in these days, and better still, if we could get it, would be religious assurance. Never was it more urgent or more difficult to justify the ways of God to men. Our material betterment is a great thing, and our comparative freedom a greater, but these rather increase than diminish the need of a higher discipline in the mind that is to use them profitably: the more opportunities the more problems. Social betterment is like the advance of science in that each achievement opens up new requirements. There is no prospect that the world will ever satisfy us, and the structure of life is forever incomplete without something to satisfy the need of the spirit for ideas and sentiments that transcend and reconcile all particular aims whatsoever. Mediaeval religion is too unworldly, no doubt, for our use, but all real religion has its unworldly side, and Thomas a Kempis and the rest were right in holding that no sort of tangible achievement can long assuage the human soul.

Still more evident is the need of religion in the form of " social salvation," of the moral awakening and leadership of the public mind. Society is in want of this, and the agency that supplies the want will have the power that goes with function—if not the church, then some secular and perhaps hostile agency, like socialism, which is already a rival to the church for the allegiance of the religious spirit.

Perhaps, also, there was never an age in which there was more vital, hopeful religious aspiration and endeavor

(381) than the present—notwithstanding that so many are astray. It is, of course, a great advantage of the decline of forms that what survives is the more likely to be real. The church is being transformed in the persons of its younger and more adaptive members, and the outcome can be nothing else than a gradual readjustment of the tradition to the real spiritual needs of the time. It is notable that the severest critics of the institution are reformers within its own body, and their zeal overlooks nothing in the way of apathy or decadence.

As a matter of historical comparison the irreligion of our time is often exaggerated. Any reader of history may perceive that formalism, materialism and infidelity have flourished in all epochs, and as regards America we are assured by Mr. Bryce that Christianity influences conduct more here than in any other modern country, and far more than in the so-called ages of faith.[5] In fact it is just because this age is Christian in its aspirations that we hear so much of the inadequacy of the church. People are taking religion seriously and demanding true function in its instruments.

The church is possibly moving toward a differentiated unity, in which the common element will be mainly sentiment—such sentiments as justice, kindness, liberty and service. These are sufficient for good-will and cooperation, and leave room for all the differentiation of ideas and methods that the diversity of life requires.

With whatever faults the church is one of the great achievements of civilization. Like the body of science or our system of transportation and manufacture, it is

(382) the cumulative outcome of human invention and endeavor, and is probably in no more danger of perishing than these are. If certain parts of it break up we shall no doubt find that their sound materials are incorporated into new structures.


  1. Confessions, book i, chap. 16.
  2. See his life by H. F. Brown, passim.
  3. J. R. Lowell, The Cathedral.
  4. Ibid
  5. The American Commonwealth, chap. 80.

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