Religion has always had a twofold nature, public and private, and its two selves reinforce each other. On the one hand it is a social cement, joining together multifarious human beings as the mortar of an old castle wall holds together bits of stone of all shapes and sizes. On the other hand it is the prop of the solitary individual making his weary way through life, who can comfort himself with the assurance that heaven, if not earth, has an eye open to his hard lot. This lot darkens with the approach of death, the aeternum exilium of so many of Horace’s poems, inspiring a dread partly natural or biological, partly artificial: Churches, Christian especially, have devoted a vast deal of energy to fanning it, with the hot breath of hell for bellows. In modern Europe hell has been running out of fuel, and pews of worshippers, at the same rate. But it is the unchanging fact of death that has enabled creeds born in remote times and places to keep their hold, instead of dying out along with the social conditions that gave birth to them. Antiquity is no handicap, but a positive asset: their age is a guarantee of their value to mankind, and to men and women of all sorts.

Each of religion’s two essences comes to the front when circumstances call for it. In times of disturbance, upheaval, its social aspect can appeal with added force either to conservatives or to innovators, the English Puritans for instance. When the social pulse is feeble it is the individual’s own need of a comforter that comes first. It has been the function of religious institutions to dovetail the two; the practical, if not always intended, consequence has been that men’s secret weaknesses have echoed the demand of governors for obedience. In other words, through the greater part of history organized religion has been on the side of the rich and great against the poor. Napoleon resurrected the Church overthrown by the Revolution, and trained his priests to threaten their parishioners with hellfire if they dared to disobey him.

Hence on balance religion has promoted rancid conservatism and perpetuated social injustice. This is least true of Christianity, whose uniqueness has been an integral factor in the uniqueness of Europe. It arose fortuitously from very diverse origins, among social elements mainly plebeian, within a complex imperial structure from whose laws it represented a moral breakaway. These beginnings left it with impulses towards social change that could never be entirely suffocated. They outlived its adoption by the Germanic invaders who with its aid built medieval feudalism. A military ruling class was officially committed to an altogether incongruous ethic. There resulted a perpetual tension, a recurrent ferment to which more sensitive members of the dominant strata were peculiarly exposed. This did much to feed Europe’s restless mind and chronic mutations, and help its spasmodic advance towards modernism. All religion offers an organized worldview, however defective, and so fosters the conviction that man’s universe must have some coherent shape and meaning, instead of being simply fragmentary and unintelligible. When history is propitious, men can go on from this to more realistic hypotheses.

Religion in the form of state cult has been closely linked with national or pseudo-national ambitions. Wesley prayed for blessings on George iii and his ministers, and enlightenment for poor deluded American rebels.footnote1 Britain’s faith was not a little sustained by the imperial mission which kept its Christian soldiers marching onward through other people’s countries. In turn America has called on religion to underwrite its march to world power. Cardinal Spellman did not pray for misguided Vietnamese rebels, but he exhorted the army to wipe them out, much as Luther exhorted the German princes in 1525 to wipe out insurgent peasants. Now that both Catholic and Protestant Churches have begun to jib at this interpretation of the divine will, a ‘Born Again’ Protestant fundamentalism has sprung up to bolster political reaction at home and imperialism abroad; it shows all the worst features of the Lutheranism of old Prussia, and often looks very much like fascism reborn.

For private sweeteners there is a crop of new cults, emotional offspring of an irrational civilization: the best of them revivals of elements within Christianity, like the Pentecostal movement, many others hailing from the mysterious East—chiefly from India, an inexhaustible source because Hinduism is fettered by no hierarchic authority, and anyone can come forward as a prophet or high priest, a Divine Holiness, or a god, even as God.footnote2 At their worst these cults, pouring into the mysteriously gullible West as they did into decadent Rome, can be reckoned an item in the export of drugs from backward to ‘advanced’ regions. It begins to look as if we shall need another magnum opus from Keith Thomas, entitled Magic and the Decline of Religion. Such a scene of bedlam makes it hard to decipher any more genuine stirrings; but underlying the search for new channels of communication with another world is a craving of human beings for more knowledge and understanding of one another. Modern urban life crams them together in nightmarish numbers, but it seldom brings them into meaningful human contact. Silly as they may be, some of the newfangled sects seem capable of strengthening men and women who have lost their bearings. In a society as morbid as ours, quack medicines may suit many patients best.

Far more auspicious is the metamorphosis that has been coming over the historic Churches, in varying degrees, and most strikingly over the Catholic Church, not long since the most reactionary of all. A new kind of ecumenicalism has been dawning. Formerly the term stood for the ideal of a spiritual united front against socialism, an offshoot of the Cold War; now it means rather a coming together of all who cherish similar ideals of progress for humanity, beginning with world peace. In the Catholic case the alteration is something that anyone alive at the time of the Spanish Civil War would have pronounced as impossible as for water to run uphill. There is still of course much obstruction, especially in high places. Even the Church of England, long thought of as the most thoroughly domesticated of all, has been showing signs of independence, almost as if forming part of Her Majesty’s Opposition. One of its first vanguardists was the Michael Scott whom I met in Calcutta, when India was still British, domestic chaplain to the archbishop and member of a Communist Party cell.footnote3 There is a warning in all this for Marxists, among others, that today’s life is far too intricately interwoven for any prophesying to be safe, even within the limits of Catholic casuistry and its probabilism and probabiliorism.

In 1962 the second Vatican Council gave a great impetus to ‘the idea of a Church of service and not of power’, even if it disappointed many by not making the problem of mass poverty one of its ‘main thrusts’.footnote4 Poverty, Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote in 1971, had hitherto ‘received very little theological treatment’, and there was much confusion over what to say about it. His own opinion was a forthright one: ‘Poverty is an evil, a scandalous condition, which in our times has taken on enormous proportions.’ It could have Christian meaning only in terms of ‘a commitment of solidarity with the poor’.footnote5 St Francis, by contrast, could not dream of curing the misery of the poor, but only of sharing it; by preaching ‘Sancta Paupertas’ he made a virtue of necessity.