Life Is Commitment
by J.H. Oldham


When an unexpected invitation reached me to deliver a course of lectures on "The Meaning of Christianity Today" before students of the London School of Religion, my first inclination was to refuse. On further reflection, however, it appeared to me that in spite of many divergent interpretations current today, there was perhaps something that I might try to do.

In the first place, I welcomed the challenge to set down in black and white what I really believe. I have on many occasions addressed students and other audiences. Was I sure that what I said rested on solid foundations? Had I a position which I could honestly defend against the attacks to which Christian faith is exposed today from many different quarters?

Second, it had long appeared to me that a great deal of current Christian preaching and teaching makes little contact with the thought and experience of ordinary men and women. It takes too much for granted. I could not, therefore, refuse to make such small contribution as lay in my power toward building a bridge of understanding between those who, like myself, see in the Christian faith the one hope of the world and those to whom the Christian position, as they understand it, is one that they cannot accept.

Only when the six lectures had been concluded did it become clear to me that all of them were concerned in one way or another with decision. I realized that what I had been saying throughout is that life is commitment – that one cannot live without committing oneself and that the more wholeheartedly one commits oneself the more one enters into the fullness of life.

The teachers to whom I chiefly owe the lights by which I try to live will be evident from the following pages. I have known many of them personally and have learned from them in conversation as well as from their books. The amount of quotation in the lectures is not due to accident or indolence, but belongs to the essence of my experience. My only qualification for writing a book at all is that I have been privileged to have many friends and have, perhaps, had some capacity to learn from them.

Professor H. A. Hodges, who was for many years a member of a group to which I also belonged, once wrote 1 that the Christian task today is to make Christianity visible, intelligible, and desirable. We have to make it visible, that is to say, to show that it is a possible way of looking at things. We have to make it intelligible by showing that it makes sense of life and provides a reasonable way of living. We have to make it appear desirable by awakening a fresh consciousness of those needs and impulses of human nature which it is meant to satisfy, so that it seems relevant and satisfying.

What I have to offer is, in the last resort, testimony. The French playwright and philosopher, M. Gabriel Marcel, has observed 2 that if a person is called to be a witness in a case it is because, at a particular point in the endless stream of life's happenings, there has come into his hands a bit of evidence. He is responsible, if the occasion arises, for passing it on; if he refuses to bear witness, he may do injury to a fellow human being. When one bears witness, one does it on oath; one commits oneself. Unless you stake everything on the truth of what you say, you cannot be a witness. At its highest, testimony is the fidelity of an entire life to a cause or a vision. A theology not based on testimony must be looked on with suspicion.

We are each of us, without any choice of our own, thrown into a particular situation in life, born at a particular time in history, in a particular country, of particular parents, speaking a particular language, brought up in a particular mental and spiritual climate; and it is only through that particular window that we can look out on life. We are bound inescapably to that perspective. To illustrate, let me describe the individual perspective from which I speak.

After taking my degree at Oxford, I went to India as a missionary to work among students. I was brought back after three years by ill-health and studied theology at the New College, Edinburgh. I was never ordained, partly because no congregation was pleased to give me a call. I am, in fact, what is known in Scotland as a "stickit minister." The greater part of my active life has been spent in the service of the Christian missionary movement. I was for twenty- five years the secretary of what became at a later stage the International Missionary Council. In that capacity I came to know many of the leading members of most of the larger Christian communions in numerous different countries. I have particularly valued the friendships which I have enjoyed with Indian, Chinese, and African Christians and non-Christians. They have contributed much to my education. Later I took some part in bringing into existence the World Council of Churches. The educational, medical, agricultural, and social activities of Christian missions involve at many points understanding and co-operation with governments. It fell to me to deal with some of these matters on behalf of the missions, and this brought me into touch with civil servants and colonial administrators and gave me new friendships. I had to learn to see things through their eyes, and this widened my outlook. It was not long before it became apparent to me that the most powerful transforming force in the continents of Asia and Africa was the impingement on their traditional ways of life and thought of scientific and technical cultures of the West. For the last twelve or fifteen years my chief activity has been in connection with the Christian Frontier Council, a body of lay men and women engaged in the conduct of public affairs, in industry and in the professions, who are concerned to find out how the Christian faith bears on the questions which they have to deal with in their daily occupations.

All in all, that is the sort of window through which I have looked out on life; and as a result, perhaps, of that experience I approach the question of the meaning of Christianity today with two strong convictions.

The first is that if Christianity is to have meaning for the ordinary man it must prove itself as a faith by which men can live, and in which they can find re-enforcement and sustenance, not merely in the relatively sequestered precincts of the parsonage and academic life, but in the performance of their daily tasks in shop and factory, administration and politics, and as participants in the acute conflicts of social life.

The second conviction is that we need to begin by looking at certain widely held assumptions regarding the nature of man and of human experience. These unexamined assumptions may be of such a nature as to rule out from the start the possibility of a religious view of the world. Such assumptions are questions in which Christian faith is not directly involved, but the decision reached regarding them may have vital and far-reaching consequences for the way in which men understand the Christian faith and the attitude which they adopt toward it.

1. In Christian News-Letter, No.305.
2. E.g., in The Mystery of Being (London: Harvill Press, 1950), Vol. II, pp. 125-145; and also in The Philosophy of Existence (London: Harvill Press, 1948), pp. 67-76.


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Last revised: December 17, 2002.