In January 1941, when all the world but the United States was already engaged in devastating war, President Franklin Roosevelt outlined in his State of the Union Address four freedoms toward which the world should strive: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. FDR’s speech was prescient. Within a year, hundreds of thousands of young Americans entered World War II to protect these very rights from brutal tyranny.
Two years later, acclaimed illustrator Norman Rockwell conceived of a series of portraits to appear in The Saturday Evening Post, which would epitomize the four freedoms outlined by Roosevelt. His editor took the project one step further and invited well-known writers to pen brief essays to accompany each portrait. The essay that accompanied Rockwell’s “Freedom of Worship” was written by Will Durant, best known as the author of the mid-century work, The Story of Philosophy.
Durant’s essay is remarkable, and it stands the test of time. His prose is lyrical. The entire essay is worth a close and studied read. Most importantly, in our own day, when proponents of the “New Atheism” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins caricature the life of the spirit and set up religious straw men in order to knock them down, “Freedom of Worship” serves as a powerful profession of transcendent reality. Here are some excerpts.
Why are we religious? Durant says:
Man differs from the animal in two things: he laughs, and he prays. Perhaps the animal laughs when he plays, and prays when he begs or mourns; we shall never know any soul but our own, and never that. But the mark of man is that he beats his head against the riddle of life, knows his infinite weakness of body and mind, lifts up his heart to a hidden presence and power, and finds in his faith a beacon of heartening hope, a pillar of strength for his fragile decency.
What is at the heart of religious experience?
Religion like music lives in a world beyond words, or thoughts or things. They have felt the mystery of consciousness within themselves, and will not say that they are machines. They have seen the growth of the soil and the child, they have stood in awe amid the swelling fields, in the humming, and teeming woods, and they have sensed in every cell and atom the same creative power that wells up in their own striving and fulfillment. Their unmoved faces conceal a silent thankfulness for the rich increase of summer, the mortal loveliness of autumn and the gay resurrection of the spring. They have watched patiently the movement of the stars, and found in them a majestic order so harmoniously regular that our ears would bear its music were it not eternal. Their tired eyes have known the ineffable splendor of earth and sky, even in tempest, terror and destruction; and they have never doubted that in this beauty some sense and meaning dwell. They have seen death, and reached beyond it with their hope.
Religion like music lives in a world beyond words, or thoughts or things. They have felt the mystery of consciousness within themselves, and will not say that they are machines.
From this religious intuition—and anticipating an era in which many would claim to be “spiritual but not religious”—Durant offers this:
And so they worship. The poetry of their ritual redeems the prose of their dally toll; the prayers they pray are secret summonses to their better selves; the songs they sing are shouts of joy in their refreshened strength. The commandments they receive, through which they can live with one another in order and peace, come to them as the imperatives of an inescapable deity, not as the edicts of questionable men. Through these commands they are made part of a divine drama, and their harassed lives take on a scope and dignity that cannot be canceled out by death.
May the poetry of our gathered worship redeem our daily toil and summon us to our better selves. Thank you, Will, for the reminder.