by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century December 5, 1984, p. 1143. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Like Christians of times past, we are inclined to absolutize the values and mores of the age in which we live. Unless we live in some Hitlerian society, there is bound to be real worth in the dominant values of any moment in history.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these thin [Phil. 4:8]
Being Christians does not exempt us from being children of our time. Like Christians of times past, we are inclined to absolutize the values and mores of the age in which we live. Furthermore, unless we live in some Hitlerian society, there is bound to be real worth in the dominant values of any moment in history. Who, for example, can argue with the classical virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice? Of course, the sin-obsessed St. Augustine did so argue, but even he granted that they were “splendid vices.”
If we are honest in confronting our text, the words of Paul seem curiously foreign to the ideals we set for ourselves in 20th-century America. It is not that we oppose what he says; who but an extremely perverse person can be against truth, purity and graciousness? It is rather that our center of values tends to dislocate that of the apostle. Paul thought of ultimate reality in transcendental and eschatological terms. The existence and providence of God were not even a question for him.
On the other hand, much modern thought tends to see all reality as immanent, with the eschaton and God himself so much in doubt that even Christians tend to hedge their bets. We try to be virtuous enough to eke our way into the Kingdom -- should there prove to be one -- but our righteousness is lived so as not to squander this life’s pleasure potential in case there is no Kingdom. We have found a way around Pascal’s wager. Our lives illustrate the hedonistic belief that luxury and creature comforts provide meaning. I state this not as some sort of seering denunciation of sin in modern America, but merely as an acknowledgment of what is obvious. We are all in thrall to consumer values not altogether unlike the way the first century was in thrall to Platonism.
We find that such things as good clothes, a comfortable home, a status-filled career, good food, cars, TV with a video recorder, and a stereo in home and car are worth working for and very fulfilling to own. We can barely fathom Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are the poor.”
Poverty is not only our secular version of hell, but its very presence makes us feel guilty. In the name of Christ, modern Christian social ethics points to an eradication of the very poverty that Jesus blessed. It isn’t that we wish to defy our Lord; it’s simply that we cannot see how loving our neighbors is consistent with blessing their poverty, and so we love our neighbors the way that any materialist might do: we try to find ways that the blessings of plenty might be showered on all.
Were we to try honestly to restate Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians from our own perspective, we would finally substitute our terms of value fir his. Where Paul would say, “Whatever is honorable,” we would better understand, “realistic.” Where Paul would say, “whatever is just,” we would settle for “acceptable.” Where Paul would say, “whatever is pure,” we would rather be “experienced.” Where Paul would say, “whatever is lovely,” we would say “functional.” Where Paul would say, “whatever is gracious,” we would be satisfied with “adaptable.” What Paul commends as “excellence,” we would translate as “cost-efficient.” And for us, what are the things most “worthwhile of praise”? Is not our praise most inspired by popularity and fame? In many ways the differences in fundamental values between the Moral Majority and those of us of a more liberal persuasion are fewer than we think. A neutral outside observer, seeing the similarities in our comfortable lifestyles, might well conclude that we are so alike in our praxis that our differences in theological theory are rendered trivial. This country’s liberals and fundamentalists alike are, after all is said and done, 20th-century American Christians.
In addition to the negative fact that our Christianity is inevitably shaped by the prevalent values of our culture, strong positive arguments can be made for Christian pragmatism, realism and cost-efficiency. Often, hard-headedness is required in order for ethical action to be effective. Further, we all have seen more traditional Christian values twisted in upon themselves. Who has not been outraged by a debased piety that renders truth into smugness, purity into prudishness, justice into the status quo and honor into pride? Are not the values of modernity preferable to the distortions of an obnoxious piety?
The One whose advent we await was a child of his time, conditioned by the relativities of his age. Yet there was in him a light that compels us to seek the transcendent for its source, a light in which all our relativities are themselves relativized. In the brilliance of Immanuel new possibilities are revealed, and even our all-too-human values are recast and given their rightful validations.
What do we demand in our pragmatism but to see the ‘‘true” actualized? Jesus is not an abstract ideal; he is truth in action. By his very example he concretizes the goal of all truth. Jesus makes the “honorable” and realism one and the same. He bore the cross out of his terrible recognition of the fact that God’s honor as well as ours has been stained by evil and sin. And that atonement can be brought about only on Calvary, where simultaneously God and humankind bear the burden of honor’s onus.
Jesus in his gracious self-giving demonstrated that which is truly “just.” True justice cannot be imposed from above; it is achieved only when the fairness of the judgment finally becomes apparent to all. Thus justice that is not full of grace is not justice. Jesus is the gracious justice of the God who is love. Who knows what the “pure” is but the one who experienced the degradation of the tax collectors and sinners and became one with them, yet remained wholly uncorrupted by cynicism and coldness of heart? As “form follows function,” so Jesus, “who had no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2), is made lovely in our sight by what he does for us. Jesus was never in doubt as to the cost of the truly “excellent,” but he did not count the cost. In Jesus’ budgeting -- in matters of love -- if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.
And does this One who is all honor, grace, justice, purity and beauty have the audience appeal to make him manifestly “worthy of praise”? Even those who have not yet come to trust in him and love him will this Christmas hear the clamor at the stable and will in their heart of hearts long for the truth of that which they cannot yet believe. In his still hiddenness, his manifest fame portends.