Life Is Commitment
by J.H. Oldham
IV. CHRISTThe theme of the last lecture was that the ultimate choice which confronts men is whether, as Nietzsche proclaimed, God is dead or whether He is the ground, life, and meaning of the world. Underlying the lecture was an assumption which we did not stay to examine – the assumption that it was the Christian God that we were talking about.
Christianity claims to be the revelation of God. It is from the Christian point of view a profound misunderstanding to suppose that we have, independently of God's revelation of Himself, a knowledge of Him derived from nature or history to which the revelation in Christ gives fuller and richer content. Nature reveals God only to those who already know Him. God is a hypothesis of which science has found that it has no need. The same thing is true of history. In the Christian view God cannot be discovered by man. He dwells in a light unapproachable. If he is to be known, the initiative must be His. But, says St. John, "The only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known."
The Strange fact, however, is that to many people today, the mention of Jesus Christ is a source, not so much of illumination, as of perplexity. The late Principal Oman, one of the most powerful and honest Christian thinkers of this century, recognized that for very many Jesus Christ, "instead of being the author and finisher of their faith in God, has become an additional burden upon it." 1 If Christianity is to have a meaning for the world today, its specific and distinctive message must come to men as an illuminating and emancipating power. They are carrying too many burdens and perplexities already to be attracted by a doctrine chat seems to add to them. Christ did not offer Himself to men as a burden. He declared that His yoke was easy and His burden was light. A living faith is not something that you have to carry, but something that carries you. Christ claimed to be the light of the world. That He has in some real sense been that is simple historical fact. Unless He is still for men an open door to life, we need no longer concern ourselves with Him.
For the purpose of this lecture I want to take my place beside those who stand outside the Christian tradition and are distrustful of it, to examine sympathetically the difficulties which they feel and to discover whether there are any points at which a link can be made between their experience of life and what is intended in the declarations of the historic Christian creeds.
The task is difficult enough, and we ought not to make it more difficult by starting with wrong expectations. We must not, in the first place, think that we are going to arrive at a position that is free from perplexities. That is impossible when we are speaking about God. God cannot be compassed by human thought. If He could be comprehended by small and limited minds He would not be God. There must always be a penumbra of impenetrable mystery when we speak of God. In anything relating to Him the dogmatist, whether negative or positive, is always to be distrusted. "Beware," says Theodor Haecker in his Journal of the Night, "of the terrible, lighthearted simplifiers. They create the most hopeless confusion imaginable in the long run." 2
Second, let us not be hampered in our thinking and discussion by the fear that we shall in the end be confronted with some orthodox formulation which we can accept only by compromising our intellectual integrity. I at least will make no such demand in what I say.
The first perplexity that meets us today in regard to Jesus Christ results from the growth of historical criticism. How far has criticism of the early Christian documents left us with a nucleus of reasonably assured historical fact. How much do we really know about the historical Jesus?
It is not, of course, the obligation of everyone to go into these questions. Many have neither the time nor the aptitude. Faith does not rest on a single support. It does not depend solely or primarily on what view Professor X takes of the date of a particular document, or Professor Y of the historicity of a particular incident.
The real reason that a man is a Christian is, in most instances, because he has seen Christ reflected in a life he has known or because he is a member of a group that is following a way of life that he knows to be good. He is quite entitled, if he has not time to go into matters himself, to adopt the beliefs that sustain a way of life that he has proved to be good. But there are others for whom, when questions have once been raised, it is impossible to rest until they have probed them to the bottom. What is certain is that the Church as a whole must face the conclusions of historical criticism or cease to command respect or attention in the modern world.
I am convinced, in the first place, that the God revealed in Christ desires that our minds should be entirely open to historical evidence and entirely honest in weighing it. It is right for us to take that attitude even if it should seem to be destructive of our faith. To put it in the form of extreme paradox, I must be prepared, as Canon Streeter once said, for Christ's sake – that is, because of what He stood for – to give up Christ. If I am mistaken, He will not, if I have done it for His sake, condemn me. I am sure also that it is wrong to be afraid of historical criticism. Christian faith ought to deliver us from fear. Christ lived a completely unsheltered life. If He is what Christians believe Him to be, He does not need our protection. Unreadiness to face everything that claims to be a fact is at bottom to doubt His divinity. It is only when I fling fear to the winds that I can arrive at a faith that I do not have to carry, but that carries me.
Second, if one faces with a completely open mind the results of historical criticism, one runs the risk of finding that the foundations of one's faith have been destroyed. Christianity is not simply, or primarily, a matter of believing certain historical facts; if it were, one would have to be a historical scholar in order to be a Christian. Christianity is fundamentally a life, a life in a community, a life lived, and consequently tested by the experiences which life brings. A Christian's faith, therefore, does not rest on historical evidence alone, but on what he has proved in experience to be real – that is to say, on God, whom he has come to know and trust. In the field of historical investigation his mind will be as open to the evidence as that of a non-Christian. He will not shrink from facts that seem to threaten the foundations of his faith, but will at the same time be aware that those foundations are wider and deeper than judgments about historical facts.
Third, it is important to keep constantly in mind that on no period of history has so fierce a light been directed during the last hundred and fifty years as on the origins of Christianity. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who nearly fifty years ago startled the whole theological world by a book reviewing the course of research into the life of Jesus during more than a century, describes that intense, sustained effort as a "uniquely great expression of sincerity. one of the most significant events in the whole mental and spiritual life of humanity." 3 If, after this unparalleled test, there has survived a nucleus of factual happenings, of which we can be reasonably assured, we are on exceptionally firm historical ground. That there is such a nucleus of historical fact on which we can rely is the conclusion reached by many competent scholars who have investigated the question.
Dr. C. H. Dodd, widely recognized as a leading authority on the New Testament, believes that what can be established to the satisfaction of most reasonable men is that "in the fourth decade of the first century the Christian church grew up around a central tradition which, however it is expressed – in preaching. in story, in teaching, and in liturgical practice – yields a coherent picture of Jesus Christ, what He was, what He stood for, what He said, did, and suffered." 4
Another eminent scholar, Dr. R. H. Lightfoot, has written: "It may be said at once that in the belief of those best entitled to express an opinion on the subject, the historical basis of Christianity, more essential to it than to any of the great religions of the world, is in no danger whatsoever, and also that with the help of the Gospels the main features of our Lord's character and teaching may become truly and well known to careful thought and study." 5
It is true that every historical judgment is open to question, and it would be idle to pretend that the views which have been quoted meet with universal acceptance. No writer can avoid being influenced in his selection and evaluation of facts by his total outlook on life, his range of experience, and his own scheme of values. Undoubtedly there may be a Christian bias, but it is also possible that there may be a bias on the other side. Allowance has to be made for these facts as well as for dogmatic prejudice and conservative complacency.
The position, then, is that the most relentless research has left us in the position that belief in a solid nucleus of historical fact has the support of competent scholars. Even critics who exercise the greatest critical reserve, such as Paul Tillich, recognize that reports and interpretations of Jesus Christ in the New Testament attribute to Him two outstanding characteristics – his maintenance of an unbroken unity with God and His complete renunciation of every attempt to gain any advantage from this unity for Himself. 6
That even radical uncertainties about the historical facts are not a bar to Christian faith and discipleship is shown by the attitude of some of the most critical and skeptical among the historians. An outstanding example is Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who, already in his twenties, had become a doctor in theology, philosophy, and music and acquired an international reputation in all three subjects. He then made a fresh start and obtained a doctorate in medicine in order that he might go as a missionary to Africa and do what lay in his power as an individual to atone for the wrongs that Europe had done to Africa. He founded, and has maintained for more than forty years, a hospital and center of all kinds of remedial activity in one of the most backward parts of West Africa. He is beyond question one of the most gifted men of our time, endowed with physical and mental powers far beyond the ordinary.
In his famous work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he reached conclusions differing widely from those of orthodox Christians. But he insisted none the less that "Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity." 7 Today, as throughout the centuries, His figure remains an inescapable challenge. Dr. Schweitzer concludes his massive work with words that have imprinted themselves on the minds of many:
"He comes to us as, of old by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words, ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is." 8
After more than forty years of experience of the meaning of the commitment which these words describe, Dr. Schweitzer, though still convinced that Jesus believed in the speedy advent of a supernatural kingdom of God – an expectation which events have proved to be mistaken – asserts: "To me, however, Jesus remains what He was. Not for a single moment have I had to struggle for my conviction that in Him is the supreme spiritual and religious authority." 9
Besides the uncertainties of history there is a second difficulty in regard to the claims of Christ, which I find less formidable, but which is a real obstacle to many and which for that reason we need to look at. It is what seems to them to be the exclusiveness of Christianity. The objection is one which has been brought against Christianity from the earliest times. In the second century Celsus attacked Christianity on the ground that "Jews and Christians appear to me like a host of bats or ants who come out of their hiding places, or like frogs who sit in a swamp, or worms who hold a meeting in the corner of a manure pile and say to one another: 'To us God reveals and proclaims everything. He does not trouble Himself with the rest of the world; we are the only beings with whom He has dealings.' " 10
I do not for a moment question that Christians have given abundant occasion for the charge. I have seen too much of the thing described, though I have also known Christians who were free from every trace of it and who mingled as Christ Himself did, freely, humbly, and acceptably, with all sorts and conditions of men. But I do not see any ground of principle why God should not, if He so pleases, reveal Himself supremely in some particular person or event, nor why, if that has happened, a man should not be able humbly to confess that here, in this place, and in this person, the ultimate meaning of reality has been disclosed to him.
We come now to the question which Christ addressed to His disciples: "Whom do you say that I am?"
The World Council of Churches admits to its membership those Churches which acknowledge Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. The difficulty for many people today in committing themselves to that affirmation is that they are not clear about the meaning of the terms. The problems relating to the historical Jesus we have just been considering. In regard to God, the more that people realize the impossibility of objectifying Him, which we considered in the preceding lecture, the more reluctant they feel to make affirmations about Him.
In considering this question we must be on our guard against the fallacy to which I called attention earlier: of assuming that we already have, apart from Christ, a sufficiently clear and reliable knowledge of God, the world, and man, and that our problem is somehow to fit Christ into this picture. It is quite the other way around. It is Christ who has given us the conception of God that is today in debate. Therefore the significance of Christ lies in what He reveals of God.
It is an undoubted historical fact that the Christian message of God as one who may be thought of as a loving Father came to the ancient world as an immense emancipation and deliverance, freeing men from the tyranny of blind Fate and lifting them on a new wave of hope. God, St. Paul declared, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness" – that is to say, the God who created the world – has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. And four centuries later, St. Augustine, with the same assurance and sense of triumph, addressed the pagan world of his day with the defiant challenge: "Can paganism, I ask you, produce anything equal to ours, the one true philosophy?" 11
In the understanding of what the Christian creeds affirm, I have derived much help from the writings of Professor Tillich. In an essay he once suggested that Christ is for Christians the center of history. All history, if it is to have a meaning, must have a central point from which that meaning is derived. For the Jews it was the call of Abraham and the exodus from Egypt; for Moslems, the flight of Mohammed from Mecca; for Marxists, the emergence of the proletariat, which makes possible a classless society. What for Christians gives to human life its ultimate meaning is the historical appearance of Christ. 12 That is something to which I can assent. Life is fundamentally personal. The deepest meaning of existence has been revealed in the life of a person. Those who believe that, are at least on the road toward affirming what the Church intends by its statements about the person of Christ.
Another way of putting things which evokes a response in me is Tillich's insistence in his Systematic Theology that new being appeared in history in Jesus Christ, that in Him a new eon dawned in which humanity was lifted to a new level and that this way of formulating the Christian faith is the one most likely to convey meaning and light to people today. 13 This is the same affirmation as the assertion in the Fourth Gospel that grace and truth (reality) came by Jesus Christ. It is St. Paul's doctrine of "new creation." That too I can understand and accept. The great key words of the writings of the New Testament ascribed to St. John – Life, Light, Love – have for me a meaning, the full depths of which I can never fully plumb. In Him was life. I am the light of the world. God is love.
Let us dwell for a moment on the last assertion. I do not think that it is possible to exaggerate the importance of the question whether we may believe that love is among the attributes of the power behind the universe. If we are able to believe that, there is born in us an invincible hope. We have nothing to fear. That there is that love at the heart of things, is the central assertion of Christianity. If that love is there, there is no conceivable way in which it could be manifested except in the life of a person. How else could it be possible to declare that God is love. Nothing greater has ever been written about love than the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. I cannot believe that Paul wrote that hymn to love out of his own head. He was plainly painting a portrait of One in whom love had found its incarnation. Consequently, he could end with the triumphant declaration: "Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." To believe in Christ is for me identical with believing that love is the ultimate meaning of life.
Love, of course, is not something that can be talked about to any great effect; it can only be lived. I have had to talk about it to bring home the thought I am trying to express. But, speaking generally, the less we talk about it and the more we live it, the brighter will be the future for Christianity. We can talk about it only because some people do live it. Christianity has in every age bred some great lovers.
The declaration in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel asserts that grace, as well as truth, came by Jesus Christ. How often have we encountered grace when we have been surprised in a thousand different ways by unexpected beauty, or when we have experienced the unanticipated, unbelievable kindness of friends. Grace also encompasses our lives through its embodiment in institutions. In the ideal home, for example, where love and mutual helpfulness are the rule, we have perpetual disclosures of the mysteries of grace. So also in the rich variety of human associations in which men are united with one another by the bonds of comradeship and loyalty, we are surrounded and upheld by a solid structure of grace.
It is none the less true that through the whole of human existence there runs a deep rift. The experiences I have described are accompanied in our lives by those of disruption, frustration, disappointment, conflict, self-destruction, meaninglessness. It is at this other side of the picture that we must look, if we are to understand the new depth of content which Christianity has given to the conception of grace. To understand that meaning we need to face in its full dimensions the problem of evil.
Could anything be more astonishing than the prevailing blindness and indifference to the reality , mystery, and depth of evil in human life? The evidence of it forces itself upon our attention, but we dismiss it firmly from our thoughts. The pitiless cruelty of man to man, in war and in concentration camps, the unspeakable degradation of human nature, the bestiality that no words can compass – these things belong to the real world in which we live. The threat which hangs over us of a war that, if it comes, will extinguish civilization and may conceivably bring to an end human existence on the planet, ought to open our eyes to the stranglehold which the powers of evil and of death have acquired over our present life. The actual ascendency of evil has been brought home to me most powerfully, perhaps, by the realization that whereas up till now it has remained open to a man in the last resort to bear his witness to the truth by suffering martyrdom, and so to find in death itself an occasion for the greatest triumph of the human spirit, it seems today as though the power of evil could rob men of this last means of rising superior to fate. The experience of concentration camps has revealed the awful possibilities of dismantling, disrupting, and destroying human personality , and totalitarian authorities have learned how to negative the effects of martyrdom by removing a victim secretly so that nothing is known of his fate and even, if need be, by getting rid simultaneously of his family, relatives, and close associates who might perpetuate his memory.
Over against this apparently ultimate and decisive triumph of Satanic power there stands in the center of human history a Cross as the symbol of a love which encountered the concentrated force of evil and was victorious over it. That picture has captured men's imagination through the centuries and given to human life depths of meaning that had never before been plumbed.
I do not think that we need allow ourselves to be overawed by the seeming incommensurability between the solitary, broken figure on the Cross and the immense sweep of history, the migrations of peoples, and the titanic conflicts of armed nations. The problem is the one of which we have already spoken: Can we believe that love is the ultimate meaning of the universe?
Let us turn our thoughts from the evil in the world to the evil in ourselves. Here again the complacency and easygoing optimism of modern man are amazing. People, for the most part, are blind to the realities of existence. Is there not a traitor in the heart of everyone of us? To which of us, as we have read the stories of the torture to which those engaged in resistance movements had to submit, has the question not struck home, whether he might not, exposed to the severest test, betray his companions or even those dearest to him?
If we have caught one glimpse of what love means, our lives must appear to us in retrospect a miserable failure. We have neglected those whom we might have helped. We have failed those who looked to us and trusted us. We have fallen immeasurably short of realizing our true manhood. No fact seems more certain than that from this unhappy state of things we cannot deliver ourselves. Every effort to save ourselves is a fresh assertion of our own individual will. And it is our individualism, our self-centeredness, and our self-sufficiency that separate us from love. The only hope for us is that a love should reach us from outside and bring us into the circle of love. We can love only if we have first been loved. The power of that liberating love can draw us into a community of love in which we forget ourselves and live only for God and other people. Christianity asserts that that emancipating event has taken place.
If that is true, Christ has an infinite significance, both for individual destiny and for the future of the human race. In regard to the first, the ultimate concern of each of us is whether our life has any abiding meaning – whether it participates in real being. The more honestly and deeply I face the realities of human existence, the clearer it becomes to me that we have nothing whatever to hope for in ourselves. When we become alive to that reality, there is no refuge from despair, no truth in which our minds can rest, nothing that can give us back confidence and hope, except the knowledge that there is an undeserved mercy on which we can cast ourselves and an unmerited grace in which we can put our trust.
Historically it was this glad assurance that the Cross of Christ brought to men, and I know of no other rock on which we can take our stand. In the traditional expressions of evangelical piety this truth has been associated with a too narrow outlook on the world as a whole. It has to be freed from those associations. It has to be held in conjunction and in continual tension with the truth of man's responsibility for the conduct of life, with a wholehearted devotion to the tasks of civilization and with a full participation in the labors by which men endeavor through their science and skill, through their knowledge and industry to make themselves masters of their fate. But in the end of the day, in the last resort, I know nothing to which the mind and heart of man can cling except the belief that there is a love which accepts us just as we are and will do for us more than we can ask or think.
In regard to the future of the human race on this planet the decisive issue which confronts mankind today seems plainly to be whether man is to be increasingly subordinated to the technical and impersonal or whether all his astonishing achievements in controlling the world of things are to be made to minister to the growth of a fuller and richer personal life expressing itself in a community of persons. If that is so, it is obviously a question of the first moment whether for the achievement of the latter end we have to rely solely on what we know too well to be our pitifully weak human resources and fitful human purposes, or whether we believe that in the words of Paul Tillich, "personality is rooted in the structure of being as being," 14 and that intersubjectivity (as M. Gabriel Marcel calls it) is the clue to the nature of reality. If reality in its depths is personal, the one and only way in which it could fully reveal itself as such is in and through a person who, in a fully personal relation to God and man, was the incarnation of perfect love and showed what man's life was meant to be.
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Last revised: December 17, 2002.