Life Is Commitment
by J.H. Oldham


It was said in the first lecture that the present life of mankind is determined and dominated by two main factors – the rise of modern science and men's resolve to assume responsibility for shaping their own life and destiny. These factors are not in themselves irreconcilable with a religious view of the world, but historically they have been accompanied by, drawn re-enforcement from, and contributed to the growth of, a thoroughgoing secularization of men's life and outlook.

Not only is atheism far more widespread than in any previous period of human history, but it is in a new sense and degree conscious, deliberate, and peremptory. For many people the question is settled beyond debate. God, they say, is dead; let us now get down to the job of seeing what man can make of his destiny.

Atheism is today the officially declared and zealously propagated creed of countries containing at least a third of the population of the world. That fact is momentous enough. Nothing, however, could be more mistaken and misleading than to contrast a godless East with a religious West. Marxist atheism is a western product. The great pioneers of modern atheism, Feuerbach, Comte, and Nietzsche, were all born and bred in the western tradition.

A few years ago I took part in a series of broadcast talks on Humanism. In my talk I said that this was a superficial age, and that in the controversy about God, many people on both sides, Christian and non-Christian alike, did not seem to realize the gravity of the problem; that it was far otherwise with Friedrich Nietzsche, who knew that when he declared that God is dead, he was proclaiming a catastrophic event, the end of an epoch, the dawn of a new and terrifying period in human history, which would witness the collapse of all values.

There cannot be imagined a deeper gulf between men than that which divides those who are convinced that in meeting the present crisis in human existence men have to rely solely and exclusively on resources within themselves from those who believe that there is a meaning in life which men do not create but find, that there is an end which they are meant to live for, a goodness to which they may respond in surrender and self-commitment and a love in which they may absolutely trust. I believe that the future of mankind hinges on the choice between those two beliefs.

Without weakening in any way the force of what has just been said, two further things need to be added. The first is that the dividing line does not necessarily run between those who profess themselves atheists and those who profess themselves Christians. Some professing atheists may believe in God more than some professing Christians. When men deny God, what they are denying is always a particular conception of God, and it may happen that the idea of God which they are denying is a false idea of God and that they are right in rejecting it.

The second thing is that if Christianity is to make headway today, Christians must learn to talk with those on the other side of the gulf, The Church seems to be hardly alive to the real situation. Christians go on talking freely about God, as though He might be taken for granted, whereas there are multitudes for whom the word "God" has lost all meaning whatsoever. It is useless to speak in a strange tongue. You cannot commend your faith to those who have no notion of what you mean. The first thing that needs to be done is to establish communication.

If there is to be a genuine conversation between those on opposite sides of the gulf, Christians must be willing to listen as well as to teach. It is not a conversation when one side does all the talking. In proportion as we realize the infinite difference between the reality of God and our own childish, meagre, fumbling ideas of God, we shall be open to the possibility that the inadequacy and error of our own apprehension of God may have contributed largely to the spread of atheism. We shall have the humility to learn from professing atheists.

As the great debate proceeds, there seem to be emerging at least two ways in which current Christian thought about God needs to be clarified and deepened. In the first place, we need a new understanding of the fact that we cannot objectify God. That is what we are forbidden to do in the Second Commandment. We are no longer tempted to make of Him graven images, but we have still to learn that we cannot even in thought make of Him the likeness of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath. God is not an object among other objects. He is not a cause among other causes. He is not, as we tend to think of Him, an immensely great and powerful person existing alongside of other persons. All these ways of thinking of Him make Him part of the world. God cannot be part of the world; He is the creator and sustainer of the world. He does not belong to the objective world at all. When we objectify Him He ceases to be God. We have set up an idol in His place.

Christians often talk far too glibly and easily about God. "I have heard students," says Professor Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, "talking about the attributes of God in a way that made me feel ashamed. They knew everything 'about' God, except that He was listening to them. They showed no signs of shame. They were theological students." 1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer says more than once in his letters 2 from prison that he finds a continually deepening meaning in the fact that the Israelites never allowed themselves to pronounce the name of God.

If God cannot be objectified, we must resist the temptation to think of His action in the world as on the same plane as natural causes. If we think of God's action as on the same plane as natural causes. If we think of God's action as on the same plane as natural causes, we can hardly avoid, for example, comparing the relative efficacy of prayer and penicillin, or asking the question of how many armored divisions or battleships the support of God in a war for a just cause is the equivalent. On that ground the atheist will always win. Men will prefer to have the penicillin or armored divisions as being more solid and reliable – to have their money, so to speak, safely in the bank – and when they have got them, there is no further need for God.

Instead of setting God in competition with His own creation, which is in reality an act of blasphemy, we have to learn to think of Him as present and active in every situation, meeting us and challenging us, accepting all the factors which constitute the situation, respecting both the processes of His own creation and human freedom and spontaneity, and continuously and creatively directing the whole to the fulfillment of His purpose for the good of man.

When our ways are committed to God everything is seen in a new light. The facts may be the same, but they are suffused with a new meaning. Karl Heim quotes a letter from a German sailor who wrote to his mother: "If you should hear that our cruiser has been sunk and that no one has been saved, do not weep. The sea in which my body sinks is also the hollow of the hand of my Saviour, from which nothing can separate me." 3 The new way of seeing things is not simply an inward change in ourselves, leaving the outward circumstances the same as before. Faith is an active creative force. It is a plain fact of experience that faith can work miracles, making possible things that were impossible before. In what precise ways faith affects the course of events in the natural order may be beyond our present understanding, but that faith in the sense in which the term is here used is a real factor in the course of events, is shown by the transforming influence of the lives of the saints, Christian and secular.

To learn that God is not part of His own creation and cannot therefore be objectified is one of the lessons which atheism may help to teach us. Another question which the developments of recent centuries compel us to face is the relation of God to man's responsibility. Modern history is the assertion of man's autonomy. In earlier times poverty, disease, famine, ignorance were accepted as the inescapable lot of man; as God's appointment to which men must reconcile themselves. Modern man has said: "These are evils that we can overcome if we will, and we do will."

May not the unbeliever who takes off his coat and gets down to a job that is waiting to be done be compared with the son in the parable who professed that he would not work in the vineyard and afterward went and did it? And might not Jesus, if he were here, say to orthodox believers, that these servants of mankind, like the publicans of his own day, go into the kingdom of Heaven before them? One cannot move about the world with one's eyes open without getting the impression that Christian circles are sometimes so confident that God will look after things that they are more easily contented with things as they are, have less exacting standards than men of affairs, who get their teeth into a problem because they know that unless they put something over by the sweat of their brow, nothing will be put over at all. Want of enterprise and lack of guts are not Christian virtues. Florence Allshorn wrote in one of her letters that she felt inclined sometimes to put guts next to love in her hierarchy of values. 4

The world in which we are living has reached the stage of adulthood. If the Christian faith is to gain a hearing in that world, it must be a message addressed to grown men, who have learned to stand on their own feet and to cope in their own strength with the problems with which life confronts them. It must in its conception of God find a larger place for the free and full exercise of the responsibility of man.

The atheist argues that you can have genuine morality only if man is free and responsible; man cannot be fully free and responsible if there is a God who limits him; therefore, there must be no God. Against this argument for atheism everything in me rebels. I could not disagree more. It is an uncompromising assertion of the individualism against which the whole of the last lecture was, on humanistic grounds, a protest. Man, we saw, is man with man. I am through the other. The other is a source of inexhaustible enrichment. If that is true of the human other, why should it not be true in immeasurably greater degree of God? The only God who could limit me in the way these writers suggest is an arbitrary tyrant. Let the atheists kill that God, if they will; they are doing a service to humanity. The Christian God, of whose nature the Cross is the symbol, remains untouched. All the difficulties about God's overriding man's freedom seem to me to arise from blindness to the meaning of love.

So far from wanting a world without God, the only world for which I can see any hope is one in which there is a God who through His perfection can evoke what is best and highest in man. If I am a student, my supreme delight is in the great teacher who opens to me the fountains of wisdom. I can grow to my full stature only through the nourishment that I receive from him. If my country is in peril, I want the leader whom I can follow to the death. If I have caught even a glimpse of the truth of intersubjectivity, of the reality of love, I want above anything else the friend and lover with whom I can be completely open, whom I can entirely trust. Such persons do not limit me; they release me.

When you love another person you make a complete, unreserved commitment of yourself. You cannot help doing that, if you really love. In marriage you take the ocher "for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part." But an unlimited devotion can be shown also to a stranger. Let us imagine a young man of brilliant promise standing on a pier, and beside him a wreck of humanity, a man advanced in years whose powers have been squandered and exhausted through dissipation. The latter stumbles and falls into the water. The younger man leaps in after him, risking, and perhaps actually losing, his own life. There is no rational justification for such an act. By every possible calculation, the younger life is the more valuable. The loss to the community by its sacrifice is incomparably greater. And yet we feel intuitively that humanity would somehow be a poorer, meaner affair if such things were not done. Such instances of sacrifice for the sake of others are not rare; they are the ordinary stuff of life. In wartime they abound. In peacetime we have only to pick up a newspaper and the chances are that we shall find some story of self-denying heroism, and the deeds that are recorded are only a fraction of those that are performed. We could never complete the tale of the sacrifices of parents for their children or of men and women for their friends, or even for strangers.

Mr. Lionel Curtis wrote many years ago a book called The Problem of the Commonwealth. In it he maintained that the basis of the Commonwealth – or, as we might say today, the free society – the cement which holds it together, and without which it would disintegrate, is the infinite obligation which men owe to one another. No partial devotion is enough. It must be an unlimited, unconditional devotion – a devotion, if need be, to the death.

It is difficult, when we reflect on the matter, to see how finite human beings, with their transitory existence, their manifest imperfections and shortcomings, can make on us this unlimited, absolute claim, which none the less we acknowledge. You can make an unlimited response, an absolute self-surrender, only to what is itself unlimited and unconditional. May not the truth be that when we give ourselves in complete surrender to another person or persons, we are responding not merely to them in their finitude but to something greater of which they are the embodiment? The question we have to ask ourselves is whether, when we really love to the point of giving our whole selves, we are not in some way reaching out to the infinite and relating ourselves to the ultimate meaning of the universe. Perhaps the writer of the First Epistle of St. John is going to the heart of the matter when he says: "God is love, and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him."

The question of God again becomes inescapable when we ask what are the grounds of our hope in life – where we place our ultimate trust. Man is a being who exists. He finds himself mysteriously pitchforked into a particular situation at a particular point in the stream of the world's life. The particular station from which I must view the world and act in it has been irrevocably determined for me.

I, a stranger and afraid,
In a world I never made.

How am I related to this staggering reality by which I am enveloped? To imagine that I could myself control and direct it would be insanity. In the presence of forces that can at any moment overpower me, I must have somewhere to put my trust. I must find some security, some foothold. A man has to put his trust in something in order to live at all. What you put your final trust in is your God. The answer which Martin Luther gave to the question what it means to have a God, or what is God, was that what you hang your heart on and confide in is your God. 5 It may be gold, it may be power. It may be nationalism or a classless society. It may be democracy or science. But in every instance there is in the last resort something on which a man depends and to which he gives his final allegiance. In this sense it may be maintained that a man cannot be an atheist. Atheism is in the end of the day an illusion. The choice is not between theism and atheism but between the worship of God or the worship of idols. When God has been slain men find themselves driven to put something in His place, some object in which they place their final trust, some idol of their own making. Yet these prove sooner or later to be hollow substitutes, houses built on sand. They are seen to be false gods. When they fail us, we are confronted with the ultimate choice – the choice between God and complete nihilism and complete meaninglessness.

Dr. Alex Comfort in his broadcast talks expresses the belief that we are no longer able to stand in the Christian tradition, including the belief in God, because we have grown beyond it. I do not see how men can ever get beyond the question of their ultimate trust. The question can never be stilled whether life is governed by blind chance or whether it is responsive to our deepest yearnings and highest aspirations.

The whole of the preceding lecture was devoted to showing how fundamental in human life is this sharing of responsibility with one another. But its significance is surely greatly diminished if it is alien to the nature of the universe as a whole. What is there to prevent us from believing that it finds a resonance in the total sum of things and from making the experiment to discover whether that is true? If sharing with one another is constitutive of our human experience are we not justified in thinking that it contains intimations of the structure of reality? May there not be at the heart of things a goodness and love with which we may enter into communion? Why should we rule out the possibility that the deepest secret and meaning of life should be found, not in the exploration and manipulation of a world of things but in communication and dialogue, encounter and response?

If dialogue and communication belong to the ultimate nature of reality, the heart of religion is prayer. The Christian assertion is that man's life can be, and is meant to be, a continuous dialogue with God. The man who has never prayed, says Rosenstock-Huessy, will never be able to understand what God means, even if he consults all the dictionaries in the world. The vocative is the only form of speech that we can use in relation to God. The more we dispense with the vocative the further we move from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. To restore the vocative and imperative to their leading place, as Rosenstock-Huessy puts it in his characteristically fresh and whimsical way, in contrast with the nominative and accusative, which are the cases applicable to things and are the appropriate language of science, would do more to dispel atheism and cynicism than all the pious tracts ever issued.

I cannot agree with Sir Charles Sherrington that to set man in his loneliness on the throne of the world and to look on "the human mind, such as it is, as the crown of mind" to which alone "human life in all its need has direct access" is to confer on man a loftier responsibility and to make him the protagonist of a virility and dignity which otherwise the human figure could not possess. On the contrary, if man has nothing above himself to which he may reach out and up, he is in constant danger of falling to subhuman levels. The reality of the danger is evident today on every hand. Man is a being of totally different stature and has a far grander destiny if he is related not only to an objective world which he can explore and control but to a world of transcendent, creative spirit, in which he is called to endless spiritual adventure and creative activity.

Belief in God is in the last resort an act of courage, the unshakable conviction that goodness, truth, and love are the ultimate realities and that if we put our trust in them, we shall not be betrayed or disappointed, because behind all experiences, however dark, is the wise love of One whom we may call Father, and who "works with His children for ends too high for their knowing, but through faith in whom they can meet life's trials with patience and have courage for its duties and discernment for its opportunities." 6

On the choice with which this lecture has been concerned the whole future of mankind seems to me to hinge.

1. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Der Atem des Geistes (Frankfurt-am-Main: Verlag der Frankfurter Hefte, 1951), p. 51.
2. In Widerstand und Ergebung (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1951), pp. 104, 112.
3. Karl Heim, Christian Faith and Natural Science (London: S.C.M. Press, Ltd, 1953; German ed., 1949), p. 195 in German ed.
4. "I begin to think that guts come next to love; anyway, love without them is a flimsy sentimental thing." In Florence Allshorn by J. H. Oldham (London: S.C.M. Press, Ltd, 1951), p. 143.
5. Quoted in Karl Heim, The Transformation of the Scientific World (London: S.C.M. Press, Ltd, 1953; German ed., 1951 ), p. 12 in German ed.
6. John Oman, Honest Religion (Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1941), p. 72.


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Last revised: December 17, 2002.