Search for Reality in Religion

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: First pamphlet edition 1969 (first published 1965), Friends Home Service Committee, London, 81pp.

Prelude: Purpose and Method
First Movement: Autobiographical
Second Movement: The Meaning of Religion
Third Movement: The Meaning of Christianity
Finale: The Future of the Church


Many institutions, professional, academic, religious, have annual set-piece lectures which individuals considered to be distinguished by the institutions concerned are invited to deliver. In the case of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Great Britain this would appear to be the Swarthmore Lecture, which is delivered at their Yearly Meeting (their equivalent of an Annual Conference or Convention). In 1965 the invitation was given to John Macmurray, who, after a lifetime of professional philosophy and personal religious questing, had been received into membership of the Society in 1959.

In presenting his lecture Macmurray had a number of concerns and aims. He did not want it to be a mere intellectual exercise, intellectual though he was. It should not be a single theme guided to a climax or conclusion, but more like a musical composition, a series of movements, each with its own tone and temper, yet all belonging together, and constituting a unity. (Music, apparently, was an art to which Macmurray was sensitive.) Thus he gave his lecture the structure detailed above. He was not concerned with conclusions of reason but a confession of faith. He wanted to make a fully personal statement. He was concerned with reality in religion. All this he deals with in the Prelude.

First Movement

This contains much autobiographical material, as much as is required to exhibit how he got his religion and how it developed. It covers his childhood, student days, soldiering in the First World War, completion of Oxford course and subsequent demobilization.

He was born into a deeply religious Scottish family. His parents were influenced at various times by the traditional Calvinism of the Scottish Church, the Evangelical Movement, the Baptists and the Plymouth Brethren. Reflecting upon his own youthful experience of participating in Bible classes and open-air evangelism he came to feel that much of his religion of those days was second-hand and somewhat priggish, the result of the teaching of others, absorbed and elaborated by a quick and busy mind, rather than the expression of personal religious experience. It could be religiously unreal, imitative and imaginary, the product of a romantic sentimentality, or of the pressures in oneself which were not themselves religious. He eventually came to hold that the dichotomy that governs religious experience is one between real and unreal, which is not identical with the intellectual distinction between true and false, nor the aesthetic one between what does and does not satisfy our emotions, even if it is related to these. He noted that science (which he had studied as subsidiary subjects) was far easier than any of the humanistic studies and especially than philosophy, and that this was possibly a major reason for its astonishing success in our time.

He recorded the importance to him (and to Christianity generally) of the Student Christian Movement as it was in those days. It showed that religious fellowship could be fun and that there was no branch of creative human effort which could not be integrated with Christianity. He reports the startling result of his study (in preparation for leading a Bible class) of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Bringing to it the methods of classical textual analysis which he had learnt, he could not find the Christian doctrines which traditionally had been derived from it. Instead he found an exposition of an experience which is available to everyone who puts his trust in Christ – of being freed from the hopeless and deadly struggle to obey the moral law, in order to enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God. Theology, he felt, required critical analysis and reconstruction if we were to have a religion which science need not be ashamed to serve. Religious beliefs, so far as they are real, are derivative. The real religion from which they are derived lies in the depths of one’s own being; its development is a development of one’s personality itself.

Daily contact with death as a soldier removed his fear of death and brought him closer to the reality of religion. An emotionally bruising experience after he, by request, preached a sermon in uniform while on sick leave, drove him out of any attachment to the current organized church. Although he felt in many ways closer as a thinker to Martin Buber, he thought that the shape of his ‘existential’ problem was closest to that of Kierkegaard. A significant event for him was attending a conference devoted to answering the question ‘What is Christianity?’ which found that it needed to deal with two other matters first: ‘The nature of modern Communism’ and ‘The Sex Problem’.

Second Movement

I have given, in the preceding section, a somewhat fragmentary and possibly uneven sample of the milestones in Macmurray’s religious development as he records it. In the Second Movement he is concerned to display his conclusions about the meaning of religion.

Space dictates that my summary of his findings must be somewhat compressed. His studies in this realm are driven now by an interest in future Christianity. What makes us human is our capacity for reflection. With modern man reflection takes various forms e.g. scientific, artistic, religious. In the beginning there is only religion. Religion is about community. Amongst its basic concerns are work and marriage (cf. that conference referred to earlier). There is a community between Nature and Man of which the community between man and man is a part. These two aspects are represented in mature religion by: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God’ and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ Religious structure might take the form it does because of the experience of God as an unseen presence.

He gives an account of the development of the split into secular and religious elements in community life. Only the Hebrews achieved a progress to maturity without breaking the primitive bond of religious unity, and so escaped the surrender to dualism.

There is also the problem of the universality of religion and how it can be achieved. It cannot be achieved by force. He ends the section with the question, ‘What is the Christian solution to the problem of the universality of religion?’

Third Movement

In this section Macmurray sets forth his conclusions about the meaning of Christianity. The Hebrews started out, like other people, with a tribal religion. They started out practicing monolatry and then went on to a full-blooded monotheism. At the centre of their religious development was the struggle against dualism. Social dualism was guarded against by the institution of the Jubilee (which prevented debt-slavery) and by recognizing prophets, who need not be priests, as the authentic mouthpieces of God (which prevented domination by a priestly caste). They had a near squeak with the institution of kingship but managed to make it part of the religious structure. Monotheism implies a universal religion so how could the one God be both the God of the Hebrew community and the God of the (yet to be brought into existence) Brotherhood of Man? By the former being the means to the latter. For this role the Hebrews were ‘chosen’. In the seed of Abraham would all the nations of the earth be blessed. The Hebrew community existed for the sake of the world (as later the Christian Church would do).

A sense of destiny arose and the expectation of a consummation in the future, and the promise of a Messiah who would establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. In the fullness of time the Messiah came, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. His view of how to deal with the problem of the Roman occupation was rejected along with his leadership and he was crucified. In brief, his plan was to accept the situation of the Jews in the Roman Empire as God’s will for them for the time being. They were to live in it but not according to its values. They were to live according to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven and thus show that they were not men to be feared, and seek to transform the Roman Empire from within. From memory, this advice does not strike me as so very different from that of at least one prophet during an earlier Captivity. If I am right, this only confirms Macmurray’s view of Jesus as being squarely within the prophetic tradition. Incidentally, I am sometimes puzzled/amused when people earnestly point out that Jesus didn’t say anything new, that everything he said was to be found in the mouths of other rabbis etc. etc. Surely, from a Macmurrian viewpoint, the significant thing is not that Jesus’s ideas were highly original, but that they came to full consciousness in him, with their implications for action grasped more fully than ever before.

Before his crucifixion Jesus had entrusted his mission to his remaining followers (a remnant of a remnant). These followers became the Christian Church. However, in due course the Church became infected with dualism, first by adopting Greek modes of thought in its theology, and then by accepting the Roman Empire. When the Church eventually lost the political power to force men into unity of belief then it splintered into the many sects we have today, for the most part practicing dualistic thinking and Stoic morality. Meanwhile the work of Christ’s Church remains to be done.


In this Macmurray turns to the present and future. The Church is the community of the disciples of Jesus working, in co-operation with God and under the guidance of His spirit, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Christian is a person ‘for others’, as Jesus was (cf. John Robinson in Honest to God!); a person dedicated to the salvation of the world. And he is a member of the Christian community in the world, which is itself dedicated to the salvation of the world, and which can only achieve this by exhibiting, in its own action in the world, the image of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The ecumenical movement is an encouraging sign, for until the Church can unify itself it cannot be seen as a plausible agency for healing the divisions of mankind. Nonetheless, Quakers should not let ecumenical pressures force them into assenting to a formal statement of credal belief. One of Quakerism’s chief strengths, and especially in its witness to other Christian bodies, is its not making assent to a credal statement a condition of membership of Christ’s Church. The only requirement is the intention to continue Christ’s intention; which is the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Membership of one branch of the Church should automatically mean membership of all. Different rituals could be left to coexist. Most are probably the result of the needs of different human temperaments rather than corresponding to some more important objective religious reality.

Some form of world government may be forced upon mankind if it is to survive. This would be political: justice through law backed by force. The Church would then have the task of transforming this from within. Just as Jesus saw that the Roman Empire needed to be transformed from within.