Real Life is Meeting
by J.H. Oldham


The papers in this volume have appeared during the past year as Supplements to the Christian News-Letter. This introduction explains why it has been thought worth while to republish them in book form. The vital question to which they are all in one way or another related may be formulated in this way: Can the Christian faith in this historical crisis do again what it did in the early centuries by saving and renewing a society not dissimilar to that which Augustine described as a "rotting and disintegrating world"? As he looked out on it, he was able to say boldly to his contemporaries, "Has paganism, I ask you, any philosophy to offer, equal to ours, the one true philosophy?" Can Christians to-day look the facts of the world honestly in the face and make the same confident challenge?

A Common Faith and Purpose

When we understand what this means, it is obvious that we cannot even begin to take the task seriously in hand, unless there is a body of people who share a common faith, purpose and way of life and know that they share it. It may be said that we have that already in the Christian creeds and the Christian Church. It is certainly true that for Christians the answer to men's deepest needs in this age, as in every age, is found in the historic Christian faith. But it is not true that there is as yet a consciously shared common understanding of the relation of that faith to the particular predicament of human society to-day.

To deal with the problems of our society we need a fresh and vitalizing discovery, not only of the truth of the Christian faith as a total world view, but of its relevance to the significant movements of our time. We want an understanding of Christianity that has been reached, and could only have been reached, by those who have felt the full pressure of the forces that dominate modern society. We are facing a crisis in the life of mankind in which man's very existence as a person is at stake. In this life-and-death struggle it is essential to know the crucial points at which the Christian understanding of life is in accord or in conflict with the purposes and direction of contemporary society. It is through contact with actual life that truth acquires a dynamic quality, and the power that can save us will come from a new apprehension of the meaning of the Christian revelation for the actual situation of men to-day. In this sense there has not yet been defined with sufficient clearness a common faith and purpose, impelling men to act together and filling them with the confidence that what they believe has power to turn the course of history in a new direction.

There have been in recent years many penetrating contributions to an understanding of the present predicament of society. But they are regarded for the most part as the individual interpretations of this or that particular writer; it is not clear that they are presenting in a variety of forms a body of common convictions. That there should be this confusion of voices is not surprising, since the situation we are facing is vast, many-sided and baffling. But the effect on the ordinary man is bewildering. He is left in doubt what it means to be a Christian in this perplexing world. He is not challenged to any clear-cut decision.

I have said that a common faith, clearly recognized as such and consciously shared, does not yet exist. And yet the main purpose of this small volume is to assert that what we are seeking has already in part been given, and is waiting only to be recognized, confessed and enthroned as the master principle of our lives. Under the relentless pressure of events, a common understanding of the essential meaning of the present situation and of the relevance to it of Christian faith has been slowly and imperceptibly taking shape. Through the gift and work of the Holy Spirit a clue has been put into our hands which, if we follow it, can lead us out of darkness into the light of day.

It happens to have been part of my job, in one form or another, for the past seven or more years to promote an interchange of thought between Christian thinkers belonging to various traditions and schools of thought, not only in this country, but on the continent of Europe and in America. It is out of this effort that the papers contributed to the Christian News-Letter have grown. Those which I have contributed contain nothing original; nothing that cannot be traced to sources that can be named. If they have any value, it does not lie in their actual contents. Any significance that they may have comes from the fact that what is said expresses convictions that are widely shared. It is the agreement that is important, and I find this agreement expressed in the writings of those who belong to very different traditions and schools of thought, as well as revealed in many personal letters and conversations.

The following incident is an illustration of the way in which the minds of those widely separated by distance seem to be moving in a similar direction. When the Supplement on "Return to Reality" was published, I received a letter from my friend, Professor Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, in America, one of the brilliant historians of our generation, as those will agree who know his book, Out of Revolution. He said that, fantastic as it might appear, I had in fact, at a distance of three thousand miles, written down the creed that for more than a year had knitted together the members of the Camp William James, where he and his colleagues were engaged in tasks of service and reconstruction.

What I am trying to say in this volume is not that I believe in the ideas it contains or that I regard them as important. I am making -- not without hesitation, but at the same time with some confidence -- the very different claim that the ideas express an understanding of the situation which is shared in substance by many who have brought to the study of it abilities greater than I possess, and who differ widely from one another in their experience and training. I may, or may not, be right in this, but it is the whole point of the volume.

The Need for a "Party"

This agreement, if it really exists, is a fact of the highest importance. The dangers by which the life of man is to-day threatened can be overcome only by a concerted effort on a scale we have hardly yet imagined. Something must come into existence which the historian of the future will recognize as having a comparable importance in history to the rise of the Communist and Nazi movements. The changes that are necessary can be brought about only by a movement that embodies at least some elements of what is meant by a "party". The uniting bond of a party is a common faith and purpose, and what I want to suggest is that, through the creative working of the Holy Spirit in the struggles of our time and in minds sensitive to the meaning of those struggles, there has already been born a faith and purpose powerful enough to command men, and definite enough to unite them for common action. The necessary basis for a movement is thus already in existence.

But when we pursue the question of a "party" we encounter what seem to be insuperable difficulties. Obviously what is intended in the present context is not a political party. There may be need in this country for a new political party guided by new political ideas. But any attempt to form a "Christian" political party would be a dangerous confusion of the separate spheres of Church and State.

There are reasons hardly less strong, though different, against forming a new non-political society with a membership roll of its own, and thereby adding to the large number of organizations, religious and secular, already engaged in different forms of social activity. It may well be that, to meet the manifold demands of the total task, many new organizations for various purposes will have to be called into existence. But if our immediate aim is to bring about a concerted effort, our thoughts will not turn, in the first instance, to a new organization, which not only may have to pass through slow years of growth before it can develop its strength and build up resources for operations on a national scale, but by its separate existence must necessarily compete with other existing organizations for the time and energies of those whose collaboration is desired. A concerted effort must be one which enlists the co-operation, not of individuals detached from other organizations, nor of a limited number of fresh recruits, but of all existing organizations which are operating in any part of the total field.

If, then, the ideas both of a new political party and of a new non-political organization are rejected, is there any other way in which the essential functions of a party can be discharged? I believe there is, if two conditions can be met. The first is that it should be found possible to define a common faith and purpose, sufficiently clear and simple, sufficiently relevant and involving sufficiently definite obligations in regard to action, to unite those who accept it in a conscious common devotion to a common cause. The second is that provision should be made for keeping as many as possible of those who share the common purpose in living contact with one another. Opportunities must be created for active comradeship in an enterprise that is one as well as manifold, in order that those who share in this comradeship may gain a deeper and richer understanding of the meaning of the common purpose and work out together its implications for the various activities of practical life.

The papers which follow are offered as a contribution to meeting the first of these two conditions. The fulfilment of the second obviously depends on the extent to which persons can be set apart to give their main strength and time to the necessary task of establishing and maintaining contacts, relating the activities of different groups and promoting the cross-fertilization of thought and experience. Fortunately, a minimum provision for carrying out this task already exists. The British Council of Churches, amalgamating the previously existing organs of inter-Church co-operation, and representing officially the Churches of this country (except the Roman Catholics) and the interdenominational Christian agencies, has at its disposal a whole-time staff. Plans are also being worked out for the formation under its auspices of an independent and pioneering body composed of lay men and women, for the purpose of furthering the important tasks which lie on the boundary between organized religion and secular social activities. This body will be responsible for the Christian News-Letter and related activities, and have a whole-time staff. If these resources were not available I should regard the present discussion as quite unreal. But their existence warrants the hope that at least a modest contribution may be made towards the fulfilment of the second of the two conditions that I have named.

This may seem a rather tenuous basis for anything that deserves to be called a "party". But how else can a movement of national, and wider than national, scope, animated by a common faith and purpose -- a movement more comprehensive than any sect or clique or particular school or organization -- come into existence, except by people coming together and discovering, through thinking together and sharing their experience, that they do in fact have a common conviction about the central meaning and true purpose of life that is directly relevant to all their varied individual responsibilities and activities?

When I speak of the necessity of thinking together, I do not have in mind merely the kind of thinking which is commonly known as "high-brow". It is just as necessary to bring together for the sharing of experience those who have to struggle with the concrete, individual problems of daily life as those whose task it is to reflect upon the issues of human life as a whole. Nothing is more urgently needed than a fresh integration of thought and action.

If a common faith and purpose (in the sense that has been explained) are essential for the accomplishment of the task envisaged at the beginning of this chapter, we must be ready for the self-discipline that they demand. We must be willing to sacrifice our ingrained individualism and self-sufficiency. We need to be re-born as those who have turned their backs on an isolated self-sufficient existence and are finding their true life in mutual dependence. We have to learn the art of listening; we need the quick sympathy which enables us to understand what others are trying to say, even when what they actually say seems to us quite wrong.

Instead of dissipating our spiritual, mental and practical energies by responding with equal zest to a multiplicity of stimulating ideas and treating them as though they were all of equal importance, our fundamental interest must be a few key beliefs which give a directing and unifying purpose to our lives. These central beliefs about the ultimate significance of life will, of course, disclose progressively endless new meanings, and fresh questions will open up in every direction. The relation of our faith to a thousand problems will have to be worked out. But there will be a fixed centre from which all our thinking proceeds and to which it continually returns, On certain fundamental issues we shall have taken pivotal and irrevocable decisions.

Man's Real Existence

I have explained that the papers which follow are republished as a contribution to the definition of a common faith and purpose. They are obviously a very incomplete and fragmentary contribution. The volume is hardly more than a sign-post pointing in a certain direction. To work out fully the ideas at which it does little more than hint is the task of many minds, and indeed of generations. But it is something to know the direction in which we want to move. And it is about the direction that I find large agreement among those belonging to many different traditions and schools of thought.

The understanding of life which is breaking through in various quarters, and which finds fragmentary expression in this volume, however simple and obvious it may seem when stated in words, involves a complete revolution of present thought and practice. The change, if its influence became general, would mark off one epoch of history from another. It is a change in the fundamental attitude to life. It was necessary that there should be a long and sustained effort of thought by many minds. Profound diagnosis was needed to arrive at the essential meaning of so vast and complex a situation. It has been difficult to see the wood for the trees. But out of the confusion and the multiplicity of problems the crucial issues are beginning to stand out clearly. Underlying all our problems as their hidden cause is a mistaken belief in the self-sufficiency of the individual, whether alone and single or united with others for the better achievement of his self-chosen ends.

The contrary attitude of conscious dependence on nature, on our fellow-men and on God is, like the other, not a theory, but a life. We have to learn to live in a new way before we can understand fully what the new way means.

We are confronted, therefore, with the necessity of making a fundamental choice. It is not a choice between competing desires and purposes of our own; our desires a d purposes have little power to change reality. It is decision about what we believe to be ultimately real. he real is something which it is not in our power to alter. Only by submitting to it can we find our true life. To trust what is real is to trust what can never fail or disappoint us.

I have tried to state the issue as simply as possible in the following paper, "Return to Reality", and it is further developed in the next two chapters and in the contributions which my friends H. A. Hodges and Philip Mairet have allowed me to include in the volume. The former is Professor of Philosophy at Reading University, and Mr. Mairet is the editor of the New English Weekly.

Problems of Society

The last two papers in the volume direct attention to vital questions regarding the relation of our fundamental faith to the problems of society. The major problems with which we have to deal to-day arise from a state of society in which our lives are no longer lived, as in a primitive community, in constant, direct relation to other persons and to things. They are interwoven with, and conditioned by, a network of cultural, political and economic systems, traditions and corporate activities. These have their basis in impulses implanted in human nature, but they have assumed their present form through the conscious and unconscious choices of past generations. They thus contain a mixture of good and evil, of truth and falsehood. The character which they bear to-day has been impressed on them by countless individual decisions in the past. Since these decisions were often determined by wrong ends, the institutions in which we have to act have become infected with error and acquired a false bias. To change this bias must necessarily be a long and slow process. That need not discourage us, so long as we know that the true leaven is at work.

My reason for including the paper on Christian Education is that I have tried in it to show the urgent need in the circumstances of to-day of distinguishing more clearly than is ordinarily done two quite distinct tasks of the Church. Besides its primary task of proclaiming the Gospel of divine redemption, it has also the responsibility of bearing witness to the true natural order of human life. The discussion by Christians of the problem of society is often vitiated by the attempt to bring too much into the specifically Christian sphere. Too little recognition is given to the natural basis and substance of human existence, which the Gospel affirms, redeems and transforms. There is a Christian doctrine of creation as well as of redemption. There is a truth about man as man as well as man as sinner and as reborn. And it is precisely this truth about man that is menaced to-day by totalitarianism, which robs him of the freedom and responsibility that make him a person.

My reason for emphasizing the distinction is that its recognition is of the highest practical importance at the present time. To talk about a "Christian" society is to fix attention on a remote goal, and this may prevent us from perceiving with sufficient clearness the desperately urgent political task which is laid on us at this moment of history -- the task of finding a real alternative to a totalitarian society; a society which, whether Christian or not, is at least compatible with the Christian understanding of life, and in which the Christian leaven is free to do its work. For the achievement of that vital political objective Christians have to co-operate with all, Christians and non-Christians, who are ready to work for a society in which community and fellowship are possible, in which freedom and responsibility have a real meaning in human experience, and in which men have liberty to act in accordance with their conscience and to obey what they believe to be the will of God.

Because of the inseparable connection between these two Christian tasks, and their peculiar interdependence in the present historical situation, the loose association of friends and collaborators, which has been described as a "party", may be expected to include both those with whom the religious interest, in its most binding and heroic form, is primary and those whose predominant interest is in political and social tasks. The force which can bring about changes in the real world is one which combines intensity of religious passion with a penetrating understanding of modern society and the acceptance of political and social responsibility. I do not see how this combination can be brought about except through the association in friendship and fellow-working of those whose personal vocations lie in these different fields.

The work of Professor Karl Mannheim, to which the final paper relates, seems to me, for two reasons, deserving of close attention. The first is that his insistence that the crucial factor in modern society is the emergence of, not one, but several, new social techniques, provides a clue of the first importance for the understanding of its problems. The recognition of the powerful influence exerted on social relations by new techniques in other spheres than the economic shows the insufficiency of the Marxist analysis, without denying its elements of truth, and opens up a fresh approach to the problems of society. The second reason is that Professor Mannheim sees with exceptional clearness that, to combat successfully the danger of totalitarianism, we must have a definite pattern of an alternative type of society, which is not only the goal for which we consciously strive, but which we use all the educational resources at our disposal to implant in the mind of the nation. He insists that to work out such a pattern in thought and action is the major task which at present confronts us, and that it demands the co-operation of those possessing many different types of experience -- theologians, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, economists, educators, administrators, social workers and those engaged in the practical tasks of industry and commerce.

Apart from a few minor changes required to adapt the papers to publication in book form, I have not made any alterations in what was written, and the papers are reproduced in the form in which they originally appeared.


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Last revised: November 10, 2001