Life Is Commitment
by J.H. Oldham
VI. THE WORLDThe attempt must be made in this last lecture to say something about the Christian's relation to the world and to society, though on so vast a subject nothing more is possible here than a few scattered observations.
There are two contrasted ways of trying to find a meaning in the world. The first is to start with our experience of nature and of man and try to discover in them traces of meaningful purpose and the guidance of God. Experience has shown that that road leads to an impasse. The other way is that of the writers of the Bible, Dr. Norman Kemp Smith points out: "It never occurred to any prophet or writer of the Old Testament to prove the existence of God. They moved among ideas that presuppose God's existence – a Being with whom they stood in relations of religious fellowship. This conception of God already possessed is used by them to explain the world." The consequence of this assurance was that no calamities or untoward events could shake this confidence. "Not being obtained by reflection upon the course of events, it could not be overthrown by them." 1
For Christians the knowledge of God is the knowledge of Him given in His revelation of Himself in Christ, and Professor Karl Barth seems to me entirely right in maintaining that the Christian belief in the world as God's creation and consequently good is rooted in the revelation in Christ. The God we know is the God and Father of Jesus Christ, and the world into which Christ came must be His world and governed by a purpose of good. Belief in the creation is thus, no less than a belief in redemption, an article of Christian faith. Belief in the fundamental goodness of the world cannot be derived from the facts of experience. The facts that point in the contrary direction are many, and at times overwhelming. The totality of existence is too vast to be grasped by our finite minds. There is a heavy weight of evidence. that points to existence being evil rather than good. But those for whom God is the Father of Jesus Christ can assent to the statement of the Book of Genesis that God saw everything that He had made and, behold, it was very good.
Apart from this faith the world presents a dark enigma. Having explored the whole field of the world's thought, Dr. Albert Schweitzer is convinced that viewed from the standpoint of the spectator, it is impossible to extract from life any intelligible meaning. Life is at the mercy of meaningless happenings. The problem of evil is insoluble. Nevertheless, Dr. Schweitzer combines with this complete skepticism in the sphere of knowledge an intensely affirmative attitude toward life itself. We cannot understand evil, but we can fight it. It is infighting and overcoming it that life finds its fulfillment. Jesus Christ offers no solution of the problem of evil, but he fought it to the death.
When we turn from the mysteries of the world as a whole to the life of man in society we seem to encounter there the same malign forces that throw things into confusion and wrest life from its true course. Most men are blind to the stranglehold which evil has acquired in our time over the whole life of society. Men constantly talk of moral evil as though it manifested itself only in the particular acts of individuals. They fail to see that the whole framework of society can become directed to wrong purposes so that everything that we do is in spite of our good intentions turned to evil ends. The peoples of the world, composed for the most part of decent, kindly, well-intentioned individuals, are devoting an immense proportion of their resources, which might be used for human betterment, to preparation for war and are ready, if occasion arises, to engage in a senseless orgy of universal destruction. We have only to look out on the state of the world today to realize how true it is that "the springs of action lie deep in ignorance and madness."
But in spite of the world having this character, Christians have to take an affirmative and positive attitude to it. However great an enigma it may appear, it is God's world – the sphere in which in this life we are meant to serve Him. Over against all interpretations of Christianity which overemphasize its other-worldly aspect, we have to assert wholeheartedly that the world is God's creation to be accepted and loved as such.
Christians are undoubtedly called out of the world to be members of the new kingdom of grace and to participate in the new being that entered into the world in Christ. But having responded to that call, they are seat back into the world to serve God there and to bring about the transfiguration of the world according to His purpose.
In so far as Christians refuse to accept this obligation and withdraw from participation in the activities of secular society, they have by an act of abdication handed over society to the direction of those who are non-Christians. They have declined responsibility in the combat against the powers of evil. For the fulfillment of the Christian task in the world it is right and necessary that some Christians should withdraw from secular pursuits to devote themselves as ministers of the Gospel wholly to the service of the new order manifested in Christ, and that there should be religious communities devoted to working out intensively the deeper implications of Christian faith and love. But such withdrawals have their end and meaning in relation to the warfare against evil which has to be waged in the actual life of the world. Their purpose is to bring support to those who are fighting the front line of the battle.
Life in the world is not only for Christians an unquestionable obligation, but also for the overwhelming majority of Christians an inescapable necessity. The life which each of us receives as a gift from God is set in the framework of this earthly existence. Men have to earn their living by their labor, to support their families, to order their life in communities, to carry on the tasks of civilization. It is only a few who can contract out of these activities and these are carried on the shoulders of the rest. Since that is so, the question for the majority of Christians is this: How can I serve God in my work – as farmer, producer, manufacturer, technician, scientist, administrator, and so on? The question to which such men want an answer is what difference being a Christian makes to the things that they do and the decisions that they make in the working day and working week. Why should a scientist or an engineer or an administrator attach any great importance to religion unless it says to him: "In the work you are doing day by day you are a partner with God in His work of creation and the realization of His purpose for the family of the sons of men."
The task of the Christian is not to lay down abstract principles to which life must conform, but to fight evil where he encounters it; and since evil can entrench itself in social and political institutions, it has to be resisted and overcome there as well as in the life of the individual.
If the whole present trend of society is utterly wrong, if the fundamental motivating force is a struggle for power, if the springs of action lie deep, as Mr. Lowes Dickinson says, in ignorance and madness, then Christians who participate in the activities of such a society cannot help being swept along by these evil tendencies. They are inescapably involved in collective sin. Many of the actions which they perform, and have no choice but to perform, are stamped with the prevailing wrongness of things. My contention is that in spite of that, they have to be content to live in that kind of world and to serve God in it. They may have, against their will, to participate in acts that deny the values in which they believe, but they must never become inwardly reconciled to the contradiction. By keeping alive that inward flame of rebellion they will be able at this or that point to take action in obedience to God which by the purity of its motive and the quality of its penitence introduces a new, salutary element into a situation which as a whole they are powerless to alter. In circumstances that are in this sense irremediably evil, an action may be right, though it can in no sense be regarded as good.
To our generation at least it ought to be plain that we do not know what the next day will bring. The only program for the Christian is to obey God in the situation in which he has been placed. That seems to me to be, when we get down to rock bottom, the Christian position. It is the inevitable consequence of the enigmatic character of the world and of the impenetrable mystery of evil. It is in accord with the warning of Jesus to His disciples that it is not for them to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority. 2 But it needs to be made equally clear that the assertion that life has to be lived without Christian programs is not meant to lead to any form of quietism. It is not a reason for withdrawing from responsibility in the economic and political affairs of society, but the declaration of a faith in which that responsibility has to be discharged. I am not advocating any doctrine of letting our light shine, "you in your small corner and I in mine," and leaving the world to go its own way. I am assuming that when God calls men to be His partners, He desires their co-operation in the whole range of human activity.
In the world as it is today Christians cannot evade the challenge of communism. The strength of that challenge lies in its radical and uncompromising attack on manifest evils and in the hope which it holds out to men of a society freed from present injustices. The Communist proposes to eradicate evil by destroying its root, which is the exploitation of class by class. The only remedy for this radical evil is the classless society, and consequently to achieve this everything is permissible.
When Marxists maintain that it is only through living interaction with the real world that truth can be known and that only through the transformation of reality can a know ledge of it be gained, Christians must largely agree. Do we not read in the New Testament that "if any man's will is to do his [God's] will, he shall know"? 3 We must not be misled by the Marxist's use of the word "materialism." There is much more affinity between the real thought of Marx and the Christian view of the relation of body and spirit than is commonly supposed. The point at which the Christian must break completely with Marxism is in regard to the belief that it is in the power of man to read infallibly the trends of history and to prophesy its future course. The universe is too mysterious and man's capacities are too limited for him to make himself master of its secrets.
It is precisely with the attempt to get rid of evil by a single stroke that the Christian must quarrel because it is completely at variance with the real nature of man. The hopes which communism holds out, attractive as they are, are in reality illusory hopes. The attempt to establish the right kind of society at a single sweep presupposes a capacity to envisage clearly the ultimate goal and a grasp of the interrelation of an infinitude of conflicting forces that are beyond the reach of finite man. When the attempt is made to embrace the whole, every part must be controlled to guard against the risk of total failure, and almost inevitably power becomes concentrated in the hands of a small number of people who succumb to the temptations which power always brings.
The error in the Marxist philosophy has worked itself out in consequences so terrible that many who once pinned their hopes to the Communist revolution have been bitterly disillusioned. To realize their aims Communists have had recourse to means which no end can justify. The conscience of men rises in revolt. The revolution which set out to establish justice has ended in a reign of injustice and murder. The Christian mind must ask whether this is not the inevitable result of attributing to the insight, knowledge, and purposes of finite and sinful men an infallibility which is assumed to justify for the sake of an imagined future every Outrage against living men and women.
Christians cannot bring this charge, however, against communism without asking themselves whether they have not themselves been guilty of similar outrages by participating in or condoning the inhumanities and callousness of war on the same ground that the end justifies every means. I know no answer to this question. The answer of the out-and-out pacifist, elevated into a general rule, seems to me an unwarranted simplification of the problem.
The Communist challenge with the hopes which it holds out to men of a radically new order of society can be successfully met only by those who are as much in revolt as the Communists against the real evils of present society. The Christian attitude does not rule out attacks on evil on the grand scale, nor even revolution when there is no other means of getting rid of intolerable abuses. The achievement of the classless society may be from the Christian standpoint a legitimate political aim. But if a revolution is unavoidable, it makes the whole difference to the future whether it means only the transference of arbitrary power from one set of hands to another, or whether its aim is the removal of intolerable hindrances as the prelude to the unending positive task of building up a healthy society by continuous piecemeal attack on particular evils and the progressive improvement of particular institutions. Man's limited powers prevent him from attempting everything at once.
In saying that life has to be lived without Christian programs and that the responsibility of the Christian is to obey God in the situation in which he finds himself, I include among the situations in which that duty may have to be fulfilled the tasks of the statesmen and all other forms of public leadership. It has been assumed throughout these lectures that man has through his science and technology arrived at a stage of maturity and that the Christian must share in the responsibilities of adulthood. Those who exercise such leadership, and those who lend the support will have to adopt political and economic policies for the achievement of particular ends. When a Christian has identified himself with a particular political party as a means of realizing objectives which he believes to be pleasing to God, his daily acts of obedience to God will fall within that commitment, unless and until he sees reason to change it. It does not seem to me, however, a correct use of language to describe these programs, however much the espousal of them may in the case of Christians be prompted by Christian motives or Christian programs, since the adoption of them is necessarily governed not purely by moral but also to a large extent by technical considerations, and since in an incompletely Christian society the purposes are shared in common by Christians and non-Christians.
You may ask whether the achievement and defense of the open or responsible society is not a program to which Christians must commit themselves. For myself I believe that it is, in the sense that it is the only adequate expression of the way in which men ought to live with one another, that is, in mutual dependence, in readiness to discuss with one another, learn from one another, and co-operate with one. another and thereby achieve the true ends of human existence which we considered in the second lecture. But I prefer to think of the open society as a faith rather than a program. The more we think of the open society not so much as an end to be accomplished but as a faith by which to live, the better we can live by that faith in all circumstances, favorable or unfavorable, leaving the time of the accomplishment to a wisdom higher than our own.
In asserting that the Christian's task is to obey God in the place allotted to him I do not in the least mean that in discovering the right course of action the individual is, or ought to be, left entirely to his own resources. The man who seeks God's guidance in order to know how to act in a given set of circumstances is a man who has gained a certain experience of life, formed certain values, acquired certain habits, adopted certain maxims about the conduct of life, read what others have thought and written, and become what he is under the influence of the ideas and ways of his own and previous generations. All these factors enter into the guidance which is given to him. He makes the decision, moreover, if he is a Christian, as a member of the Church, supported by its fellowship and enlightened by a wisdom wider and richer than his own.
It is none the less true that in regard to the decisions which this individual Christian, engaged in the affairs of society, has to make from day to day in the course of his work, there exists today a serious lack that needs to be made good. Life has become too complex for the isolated individual to discover for himself the right course of action in public and social life. To bring about effective Christian action in modern society with its many perplexities a new development is needed in the life of the Church – the formation on a large scale of groups of lay men and women who will meet, not to discuss the abstract principles of Christian ethics, but to take counsel together about the concrete decisions which they have to make in their daily occupations and to fortify one another in making them. The decisions to be made are not, as is commonly supposed, simply a matter of "applying Christian principles." In any particular set of circumstances there is not one Christian principle or value or consideration involved, but several. If one approaches the situation with a preconceived principle which one is going to "apply," it may lead one to overlook some of the considerations which one ought to take into account. The right course of action has to be discovered from a study of the facts.
Let us try to give a fuller practical content to what is meant by living as a Christian in the actual world.
In the first place, life for the Christian is a dialogue with God. That imparts to his life a steadiness and direction. There is a fixed point by which he can steer his course. For the Christian everything that he does is taken up into the life of prayer, which is the expression of his fundamental attitude. "Can a financier or a machine tender," writes Mr. T. M. Heron, who is the controller of a large business, "really pray at his work today? Can he practice the presence of God as he plans his next deal or struggles against the monotony of his nut tightening? Can he see in the thing he is making or causing to be made something which is being made for Christ's sake? Let us admit without reservation that unless in each case the Christian can answer these questions with a simple affirmative he must, if he is logical, give up his Christianity or his activity in relation to money or the machine." 4
This translation of daily activity into prayer, the lifting up of work into worship, does not necessarily make any striking, or even perceptible, difference to what the Christian outwardly does in contrast with the actions of those who are not Christians. From the man whose life has a fixed center, whose citizenship, as Paul says, is in heaven, who seeks nothing for himself, there emanates an influence which creates a new atmosphere and makes possible things that might not otherwise come about. What Mr. Lowes Dickinson says about disinterested agnostics, men of an inner integrity, can be said, I believe, with deeper truth of those who with the full force of their nature believe in God: "They are the beacon in the tempest, and they are more, not less, needed now than ever before." 5
Second, the Christian in public life is animated by the conviction that the essential meaning of life is found in the relations of men to one another. Out of this faith, where it is living, must grow a habitual disposition to treat other persons in all his dealings with them as persons. This does not abolish the part which technical rationality plays in modern society nor allow us to ignore the laws which govern technical processes. Incompetence in the technical sphere is of no benefit in the long run to anyone.
Can the leader of a great technical undertaking, Martin Buber asks, practice the responsibility of dialogue? Yes, he says, he can. "He practices it when he experiences the business which he leads, not as a structure of mechanical centers of force and their organic servants, but as an association of persons with faces and names and biographies, bound together by a work that is represented by, but does not consist of, the achievements of a complicated mechanism. He practices it when he is inwardly aware, with a latent and disciplined fantasy, of the multitude of these persons, whom naturally he cannot separately know and remember as such; so that now, when one of them for some reason or other steps really as an individual into the circle of his vision and the realm of his decision, he is aware of him without strain not as a number with a human mask but as a person. He practices it when he comprehends and handles these persons as persons." 6
To treat other persons as persons is to recognize that each has his own individual perspective which must be respected, his point of view which needs to be heard and weighed.
Third, the Christian is meant to be in society a beacon of hope. What is meant by hope? M. Marcel, who has reflected much on the subject, 7 is careful to distinguish hope from desire. We may desire certain things passionately, but that does not mean that we hope for them. Neither is hope the same thing as the rational calculation of possibilities. Calculation is something that can equally well be undertaken by the spectator and the actor. But hope is an inward attitude of one who is committed to an enterprise. Fundamentally, it is an act of trust. It is a kind of confidence – in life, a confidence that life will not let you down. You cannot, M. Marcel insists, separate hope from love. If you regard life as determined by an inexorable law, if you look on experience as closed, you cannot hope. Hope is belief in a real future, an openness to new possibilities. It means that you believe that you will find possibilities of good in every situation, and that there will never be circumstances in which love cannot manifest itself. The more we practice love and see it in operation, the stronger becomes our conviction of its conquering power and ultimate triumph.
In its heart and essence the Christian decision is the decision to live in the actual world of nature, history, and society by the powers of faith, hope, and love.
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Last revised: December 17, 2002.