Life Is Commitment
by J.H. Oldham


Several years ago, Professor Paul Tillich was lunching with me in London. I remember saying to him on that occasion, "You know, Tillich, Christianity has no meaning for me whatsoever apart from the Church, but I sometimes feel as though the Church as it actually exists is the source of all my doubts and difficulties." It would not be proper to disclose his reply, but those who are familiar with his published writings will not suppose that he vehemently disagreed with me.

What do I mean by saying that Christianity is unthinkable apart from the Church? In the first place, if Christianity is the revelation of the depths of the personal and of love as the ultimate meaning of the universe, it can find expression only in a community. Love can exist only between persons. It demands community. Christ is not Christ without the community of love which He founded. In contrast with all other forms of association which exist for particular, limited purposes, the Church is the association which unites persons with persons, inclusive of all ages – the tiniest infants are admitted by baptism – all occupations, all classes, all races.

Second, the Church is indispensable as the society which has to do with men's ultimate concern. Our ultimate concern is about our fundamental being and the meaning of our life and destiny. Other associations have to do with men's immediate concerns in their temporal existence. Take away the Church with its centers of worship, and life becomes wholly this- worldly and loses immeasurably in depth.

Third, the Church is necessary because Christianity is essentially the proclamation, not of a demand, but of fulfillment. It is not the insistence on love as an ideal to be striven after, but the joyful news that God is love and that we know this because His love has been manifested in history. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. The Church is the witness to that revelation and the continuing embodiment of that new life. Take away the Church, and Christianity itself disappears. It is a delusion to suppose that we can cut out twenty centuries of lived experience and establish a direct relation between ourselves and the historic Jesus. If we relate ourselves to Him, it is as those who stand in the living stream of tradition and are caught up and borne forward by it.

Fourth, the coming of this new being and life, when it is apprehended by the mind, is found to imply certain conceptions about God, the world, and man, that is to say, a theology. The Church is the guardian of the new message and proclamation. and has to see that they are preserved in their purity and power and protected against error, misrepresentation, and emasculation.

These considerations seem to me conclusive and unanswerable. Yet they somehow leave many people cold. Many who would like to call themselves Christians cannot feel at home in the Church. An examination of the reasons for this may help to shed light on the meaning of Christianity today.

In considering the position of the Church in modern society it is natural to think first of the largest among Christian churches, which is at the same time the most uncompromising in its claims. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the sole possessor of the truth about man's salvation, to be the unerring teacher of that truth, and to be invested with an unfettered authority in things sacred. These exclusive claims are not admitted by the other non-Roman Christian churches, and are unhesitatingly rejected by the modern secular world.

They are not, however, claims to be lightly dismissed. Christians, at least, must not forget that by its massive existence through the centuries the Roman Catholic Church has kept before men's minds the belief in Jesus Christ as the inaugurator of a new epoch in history. It has nourished within its fold in successive generations a multitude of lives of extraordinary sanctity, beauty, and power.

An incident of my undergraduate days lives in my memory. I attended at Oxford the lectures of one of the most brilliant tutors of his day, who was an agnostic. One day he made some passing, rather biting, reference to the Roman Catholic Church, at which some of his listeners laughed. He at once turned on them. "Don't be such stupid fools, gentlemen," he said, "as to treat the Roman Catholic Church with ridicule. It has had in its service some of the greatest intellects that the world has known and has accumulated a store of learning, wisdom, and insight altogether beyond the range of most of you."

In spite of all this, the claims of the Roman Catholic Church have, since the Renaissance and Reformation, been challenged on two grounds: In the first place, in the name of what we may call rationalism or liberalism, that is, the right of man to investigate and find out things by the exercise of his own reason. In many directions that claim has been overwhelmingly vindicated. The determined effort by man in recent centuries to discover by science the secrets of the universe has revealed to us a far more wonderful world than men had known before and endless possibilities of which they had never dreamed. Mankind is not likely to go back on that experience, nor do I see any reason why it should. Men could not have had the powers of discovery and control which they have shown themselves to possess unless those powers had been implanted in them by their Creator.

The challenge to the authoritative, exclusive claims of the Roman Catholic Church, however, comes not only from the secular but also from the religious side. The most powerful recent expression of that challenge is found in Paul Tillich's The Protestant Era. The essential Protestant principle, vital to true religion, is in Tillich's view the assertion that nothing human, no individual, no group, no tradition, no moral code, no set of ideas, no doctrine, can claim finality, absoluteness, unchallengeable authority, since these belong to God alone. No truth that exists in human minds can lay claim to sacredness or immunity from error.

This leads Professor Tillich to distinguish three possible relations between religion and culture, the Church and civilization, which he calls autonomy, heteronomy, and theonomy. These contrasts illuminate in a striking way the position of Christianity in the world today.

Autonomy is the attitude which refuses to submit to the claims of any outside authority, and looks upon man as the measure of all things, the sole judge and arbiter of everything that is. In so far as this attitude is an assertion of man's dignity and responsibility, a demand for freedom to search for truth and to follow truth wherever it may lead, I believe that we must as Christians affirm and approve it.

The acuteness of the problems to which man's claim to autonomy gives rise is impressively brought out in an article by Michael Foster in the Christian News-Letter. 1 He points out that not only has modern science given man a control over nature beyond anything that earlier generations could have anticipated, but it has at the same time emancipated him from the guidance and tutelage of nature.

From the dawn of science up to the present century, it has been assumed that in dealing with nature man had to do with a hard core of reality, an ultimate substance existing independently of his knowledge of it.

It was the teaching of religion that as Archbishop Temple wrote in the Christian News- Letter, 2 man's life has been "set in a natural order which is God's creation. A fundamental duty which man owes to God is reverence for the world as God has made it." That assertion expresses an indubitable truth. It is not open to man to exploit the natural world in any way that he pleases. There are laws which he cannot violate without incurring a heavy penalty. But the range of matters subject to his deliberate choice has been enormously extended. He has already learned how to control births; he may soon be able to determine sex. He has a growing power not only over the atom but over life itself.

The powers which modern man has acquired also emancipate him increasingly from the control of social tradition. We can no longer regard the historical environment into which we have been born as God's unalterable will for us. Men have come to regard our entire social environment as subject to our own choice and decision. 3 It is in our power to alter it; and, if we decide to make no change, that too is a decision for which we ourselves must bear the responsibility. In so far as autonomy is an expression of man's growth to maturity, religion has no cause to quarrel with it. There is no escape from autonomy into any kind of heteronomy.

By heteronomy is meant the claim of some human institution, ecclesiastical or political, to subject men's reason and conscience to external control. There will, no doubt, always be some, perhaps even the majority of men, who find the burden of deciding things for themselves too great, and will be glad to have it taken from them by submitting to authority. It is for this reason that in times of perplexity such as the present, heteronomous forms of religion, which insist on the acceptance of a strict orthodoxy, may meet in certain quarters with striking successes. I am not sure that we must not recognize that for some people the unquestioning acceptance of an authoritative tradition may be the right decision – the surest means by which in their circumstances their lives can find fulfillment. Nor must we forget that many powerful minds have found it compatible with the exercise of a free and responsible decision to submit in matters of dogma to the authority of a historic Church.

But so far as the emancipation of the various spheres of the secular life from ecclesiastical interference and control is concerned, the battle against heteronomous claims has been effectively won, and there is not likely to be any going back. It is no longer questioned by thoughtful Christians that secular activities have laws of their own which can be observed and studied without reference to the divine source. There are areas and levels of life that are governed by their own laws which religion must respect.

But equally in regard to religious belief itself heteronomous domination has to be firmly rejected. It has to be insisted that every human situation, secular or religious, every human institution and authority, every human formulation of belief, belongs to the sphere of the finite and is subject to God's judgment and consequently open to reverent examination in the light of His Word. It has to be maintained also with the same firmness that man as a free and responsible being must not be asked to give his assent or to commit himself to anything that does not command the full assent of his total personality. Nothing is true for us unless and until we see it for ourselves. The defense of human integrity in this sense is required in the interests of religion itself.

If neither autonomy nor heteronomy can satisfy us, what is left to us? Tillich's answer is what he calls theonomy. Secular society is autonomous against ecclesiastical direction and control. Religious belief is autonomous against ecclesiastical dictation and domination. But they are not autonomous against God. It is precisely because of their appeal to God that they are justified in their resistance to ecclesiastical or political dictatorship. Theonomy means surrender to the deeper meaning which lies hid in every experience, to the unconditioned demand that may meet us in any of the ordinary encounters of life. To submit to these involves no violation of a man's integrity, for it is submission to truth, to reality itself, and only through such submission can a man become fully himself.

What then can we do to bring about the state of theonomy in which man is delivered both from the isolation of his individualism by entrance into a community of love and from heteronomous claims which impede his growth in freedom to his full stature? The first answer is that we can of ourselves do nothing. The Kingdom is God's gift. We cannot build God's kingdom; we can only receive it. The fundamental attitude demanded from us is one of expectancy. But in proportion as our attitude of waiting and expectancy is real we shall set ourselves to remove obstacles in the path of its coming.

The first major task to which we have to give ourselves is to unite what is at present divided. We have to reunite the Church with life, the Christian faith with the totality of human experience. That reunion is equally necessary for the sake of society and for the sake of the Church itself.

Society cannot dispense with the Church. The profane needs the holy to save it from superficiality and aridity. When the authority of the sacred is denied, life becomes a prey to demonic powers. If society is to be redeemed, salvation must come to it from without. "Nothing could be more alarming," Baron von Hügel says with truth, "than to find that religion, when pressed, could give us nothing but just what we want; we, you and I, at any one date, within our human lives, so incomplete, so very little, so very short." 4

But the other half of the truth is that the Church has to relate its witness to the whole of human experience. Its mind and heart have to be open to all experience. Religion is not a form of experience existing separately from other forms of experience. It is the transfiguration of the whole of experience.

If Christianity is to become a living force it must break through the molds in which it has become confined. It must recognize that what the Church offers to men is, because of its inescapable finitude as a human group, never the Christian revelation in its purity and fullness but only as much of that revelation as the natural capacities of its members and the cultural and sociological conditions of the period allow it to apprehend. You cannot put into a pint pot more than it will hold.

Christians must have the humility to learn from those who may not call themselves Christians, but who may have a wider and deeper knowledge of the nature and spirit of man, or have gained through their toils and sufferings a profounder experience of life than many Christians possess. Renewal "will come [to the church] only if the clergy cease to regard themselves as a self-perpetuating and self-enclosed corporation, interested in maintaining their own traditions but move out into a new kind of conversation with all those seriously concerned with the destiny of our society, whether prepared to call themselves Christians or not. The Church needs to listen in a new way to what secularized man has to say to her." 5

The need to restore the broken connection between the Church and life as it is actually lived demands a radically new understanding of the place and function of the lay members of the Church. There is a great deal of talk in church circles at the present time about the importance of the laity. But the question is approached almost invariably from the wrong end. What is usually meant is that more laymen should come in and give their support to the Church as it is. That is just what a large number of the best lay people at present standing on the fringe will not do. The much more important question to which the Church needs to address its mind is its own need of the experience which these people have of life to widen its outlook and deepen its understanding, so that it may become a more effective force in society. If Christianity is not something existing apart from life but is the transfiguration of life itself – and that means in the end the transfiguration of the whole of life – it is those who are in the front line of the battle and are exposed to the severest tests who can best teach us what Christianity means as a living faith. It is through its lay members that the Church makes contact with the life of the world.

If it is true that it is the actual world in which men earn their living and carry on their temporal activities that the new life in Christ is meant to transform, a revolution is needed in the present outlook of the Church. Instead of making itself the center and appealing to those outside to attend its services and take part in its own institutional activities, it needs to concern itself in a new way with the struggles and problems of those of its members who are living in the real world and helping by their daily decisions to direct its course.

The second great task which confronts the Church arises out of the situation which has engaged our attention throughout these lectures. The overwhelming need of society today is to prevent personal existence from being submerged by impersonal forces and technical requirements, to affirm the reality of love in face of the reality of power. That precisely, Professor Herbert Butterfield asserts in Christianity in European History, is the service which the Christian church, in spite of all its failures and shortcomings, has, in fact, rendered in past history. By its assertion that human personalities have an absolute value in virtue of their relation to God – and it is open to the most serious question whether they can have that value on any other ground – and by its insistence on the ultimate importance of love as a relationship between spiritual personalities, it has been "a kind of fermentation in society, operating like something in chemistry, perpetually moving as a spontaneous and original spiritual force." 6 That is the task that has to be continued in our own time under the conditions of our scientific, technical, administrative, collective society. The immensity and daunting difficulty of the task need no elaboration.

In his challenging book, The Misunderstanding of the Church, 7 Professor Emil Brunner injects into the discussions that are taking place in the World Council of Churches regarding the nature of the Christian church some radical questions. Is the Church, he asks, as it now exists in any of its forms – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant, the same thing as the ecclesia of the New Testament? The answer, he maintains, is that it is not. The ecclesia of the New Testament is precisely not what every Church, at least in some degree, is – an institution. It is a fellowship of persons and nothing else. It is referred to as the fellowship of Christ or of the Holy Spirit, where fellowship means participation and being together, that is to say, brotherhood. As the body of Christ, the ecclesia is neither thing nor organization but personal community.

History has shown that the Churches are necessary as a means of preserving the continuity of the Christian message and doctrine, but they have in the main failed lamentably to create living centers of fellowship. If we acknowledge the guiding hand of providence in the historical growth of Churches, we must today recognize the same providence at work in the multiplication of forms of Christian fellowship outside their borders. With or without the Churches, even if need be in opposition to them, the will of God for human brotherhood is being, and must be, fulfilled. On their ability to recognize and co-operate with this purpose the future of the Churches will depend.

The question with which our age confronts the Churches is the question what they can do to bring back the power of love into human life. The whole future of mankind depends on whether the enormous powers which man has acquired through knowledge can be exercised under the controlling power of love. We are faced with the inescapable question whether there is the least hope that man can discharge his overwhelming responsibilities except in a spirit of reverence toward the source from which his powers are derived and through the humanizing experience of relations of mutual obligation and responsibility with his fellow men.

If it is to such lofty tasks as these that the Church is called in our time, is everyone who is convinced of the necessity of these tasks, and who sees in Christ the hope of their fulfillment, inevitably committed to joining its membership? Many will accept it, as I do myself. But I should not be true to what I believe to be the real situation if I did not recognize that there will have to be far-reaching changes in the outlook and the pattern of spirituality of the Church before many who are at present outside its fold can find themselves at home in it. I know men whom – they being what they are, and any company of Christians that they might join being what it is – I could not with a clear conscience urge to join the Church. To move into the new context would mean a too great tearing up of their present roots for healthy growth. I do not doubt that they, like all of us, need to change. But a change in them would not be enough. Neither the present outlook nor the present practice of the Church is comprehensive or rich enough to provide an environment in which such persons could find their true fulfillment.

The practical consequence of what I am saying seems to me to be that in present circumstances the Church, in the sense of the parish or congregation, must in addition to its ministry to the faithful, try, wherever possible, to maintain touch with a group of people outside its membership. I met a few years ago a minister in a rural parish in Scotland who told me that he had had for some years a group of people, none of whom were members of the Church, meeting for an evening every fortnight in his manse, and that what was happening in the minds and lives of this group sometimes seemed to him more important than what was going on in the regular congregation.

To refrain from becoming a member of the Church, as, for example, Simone Weil did, 8 out of a higher loyalty to God, or because to become enmeshed in a particular spiritual pattern would impede one's true spiritual growth, as may in some instances very well be the case, is one thing. To hold aloof from fastidiousness or from a haughty unwillingness to be associated with a company of ordinary people with all their human faults and failings is quite another. The entrancing beauty of Christianity, in the eyes of Baron von Hügel, lay in its freedom from all fastidiousness. 9

And yet, one who is a member of the Church must never forget through what a small and narrow window of individual perspective he looks out on life and how limited also is the perspective of the Church and tradition to which he belongs. While remaining faithful to the truth as they see it, those who are members of the Church must refuse to shut themselves up within the walls of their own orthodoxy. The Church is most true to its own nature when it seeks nothing for itself, renounces power, humbly bears witness to the truth but makes no claim to be the possessor of truth, and is continually dying in order that it may live.

1. In Christian News-Letter, No.299.
2. In Christian News-Letter, No.198.
3. A powerful expression of this point of view is found in K. R. Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945; 2nd rev. ed., 1952), 2 vols.
4. Baron Friedrich von Hügel, The Reality of God (London: J. M. Dent, 1931), p.15.
5. Daniel Jenkins, Tradition and the Spirit (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), pp. 166-167, abridged.
6. Christianity in European History (London: Collins, 1952), p. 54.
7. London: Lutterworth Press, 1952.
8. See Simone Weil, Waiting upon God (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), pp. 5, 6, 10.
9. Selected Letters (London: J. M. Dent, 1927), p. 258.


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Last revised: December 17, 2002.