Chapter 1: The Ecology of Faith, and The New Preaching Situation
It is now more than sixteen years since I was called away from a parish and a pulpit to assume the ministry of teaching. That fact is remembered here at the outset because it has determined the substance of these lectures. Lectures on preaching would normally and reasonably be assumed to have been prepared by a regular practitioner of the craft who, having actualized certain convictions about substance and method, has now undertaken to order and articulate his ideas.
That assumption in the present instance is not correct, and on several grounds. The elaboration of these may be a useful introduction to the following hours. During the years I have been a teacher of systematic theology I have continued to preach, most often in college and university chapels. Both foci of my work, that is to say, have been spheres of swirling change. As a teacher of theology one is exposed to and participates in the huge demolition and the tentative theological reconstruction of this twentieth century. As a university preacher one is obliged to declare the thus mauled but persistent message at the very place where the forces which make it difficult to communicate, to hear, and to apprehend, enjoy the most open field, inform the most esteemed disciplines, and have access to the most mobile minds.
I cannot, further, address you out of a confidence matured in almost thirty years of preaching. For I am steadily less confident of the adequacy of the ways I have gone for the time in which we now are, and am quite certain that they will not do in the years ahead. What has been done is not repudiated; it is simply assessed in terms of efficiency and communicative vitality, and found wanting in fresh circumstances. Forms of communication must change as one’s mind and spirit grope toward larger meanings and as one sees the faces that look up at him to be eloquent with fresh problems, apprehensions, loves, hopes. In my city, as in yours, new forms of architecture are springing up to enclose new functions or to enclose old ones in a new way. It means something for every craftsman that these forms celebrate new materials and textures, that there seems to be a fresh delight in sheer cleanliness of line in this cluttered world, that forthright candor of statement is both proffered and received. A building by Mies van der Rohe is similar to the structure of a sentence by Ernest Hemingway. One cannot sermonically address men who produce and live in the steel and glass world of form in ways fashioned out of and for another time. Here, too, form follows function.
Now, therefore, I want to share with you some of the questions I ponder as I try to learn how to preach to my time, and certain ideas which I am weighing in the process of that endless work of obedience.
The first lecture, "The Ecology of Faith," is an effort to illuminate the present situation of preacher and parish by exploring the relational determinants suggested by the science of ecology. The second, "The Search For Theological Method, and Its Requirement of Preaching," is an inquiry into the central meaning of this search, and an effort to suggest how our practice in preaching may be changed by its occurrence. The third, "The Role of the Imagination in Preaching," is a kind of public payment of a debt! If I have learned anything about how to transform a theological assertion into an invitatory religious address, my constant teacher has been the Apostle to the Gentiles. The tight sequences of Paul’s thought are not more characteristic than his amazing leaps; and in my own experiences as a preacher, the open space between the taking-off place and the landing place has been profoundly instructive. The fourth is a continuation of the third, an effort to reflect upon and reenact the delicate process whereby the mind and the imagination move from the place of hearing to the public celebration of the thing heard. The final lecture is but the articulation of a protest directed to those who alone can do anything about what I have called the "Maceration of the Minister." The substance of that lecture is less for the ears of the ministers than for those of the people in our parishes and for the executive officials in our general bodies. I say it in the context of these lectures on the legitimate ground that the macerated minister is operationally restrained from doing what the Lyman-Beecher lectures were intended to help him to do; and on the possibly illegitimate ground that this shout might be amplified from as prestigious a pulpit as is available for me.
Ecology is defined as the science that deals with the mutual relationship between organisms and their environment. As I have reflected upon the many elements that constitute the situation to which Christian preaching is directed I have sought for an analogy big enough and rich enough to do justice to all the trees, and at the same time lure the mind to the forest. The facts of the biological and botanical world seem to supply such an analogy.
On the bank of a river that flows between high hills is a village. It has been there for centuries. The village has made an arrangement with the vernal and autumnal moods of the river: the houses and shops know how much the river rises with the spring runoff of the snow water and with the fullness of the autumn rains. Well up the bank they keep their distance. High in the forest-covered hills, too, a right relationship exists between trees and earth and forest animals and insects. By virtue of a marvelous ecological balance the life of each is regulated by the function of the others. Under the bark of the trees, for instance, there are millions of beetles which, undisturbed, would destroy the trees. But they do not destroy the trees because beetles are food for woodpeckers and the birds devour the beetles in such numbers as to keep the margin safe. On any summer’s day in my part of the country one can hear the birds about their happy ecological business! But one day a great beetle-infested tree so falls upon the soft-mounded earth that its underside is inaccessible to the birds. Thus protected, the beetles proliferate in the rotting timber. They spread from tree to tree now in such numbers that the bird-beetle balance is destroyed.
Tree after tree is attacked, invaded, killed. The first ravaged acre increases to a dozen denuded hillsides. The billions of miles of earth-gripping hair roots die. When the rains come and the melting snow water gathers to a flood, the earth sponge, loosened now, nonfibrous and helpless, pours the water down the slope and with it the accumulated rich earth of unnumbered forest seasons. The old rhythm of the river is broken by a process that began with a strangely falling tree. The shops and houses at the river bank are flooded in the spring because the beetles on the far hills had an uninterrupted cycle of life.
Every situation in which the Word of God is declared in preaching is a place and a moment on the riverbank; and the permeability of that time and place to the declared Word is bound up with the forests, the birds, the beetles, and the waters of history. From Incarnation to culture is a straight line, for the determination of God to embody his ultimate Word places man’s relation to that Word inextricably in the web of historical circumstances. The Word is not naked, it is historically embodied. The hearing situation is not naked either, and culture is the name for that ecological matrix in which the embodied will and deed from above addresses the embodied hearer at every point along history’s river.
The depth, opulence, and vitality of a culture is determined by the fullness with which each episode in thought, feeling, and action is heavy with this ecological matrix. Men may think, feel, and act in ways that are novel, unprecedented, tradition-breaking and still preserve unbroken that power and content of the past whereby the life of culture is enriched. Hawthorne is deeply honored for his role in the articulation of the American character because he was creatively appreciative of what he repudiated and knew to be dead. And Joseph Conrad, a virtuoso among twentieth-century recorders of the demonic potential in the liberated life of the modern man, could write, ". . . for life to be full and large it must contain the care of the past and of the future in every passing moment of the present."
What is to be observed in that statement is the choice of the term care to designate the feeling-tone that pervades a man as he stands at the evanescent borderline between the "not yet" and the "no longer." Care is neither sentiment nor acquiescence; it suggests neither uncritical accumulation nor idealizing evaluation. To care is to cherish because a thing is given, because one has been there, because every field of dishonor or of praise is alive in the rich leaf mold of the unfolding years. This ecology of the spirit is what informs and sings out of memorable utterances which are hauntingly compounded of gallantry and pathos, memorable in virtue of evocative powers that escape analysis.
Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
(Excerpt from "A Sea Dirge," in The Tempest)
Or this, from a Cambridge lecture by Arthur Quiller-Couch: "Is it possible, gentlemen, that you can have read one, two, thee, or more of the acknowledged masterpieces of English literature without having it borne in on you that they are great because they are alive, and traffic not with cold celestial certainties, but with men’s hopes, aspirations, doubts, loves, hates, breakings of the heart; the glory and the vanity of human endeavor, the transcience of beauty, the capricious uncertain lease on which you and I hold life, the dark coast to which we inevitably steer; all that amuses, or vexes, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women on this brief and mutable traject which yet must be home for a while, the anchorage of our hearts?"
Or this, in the quiet imagery of Walter de la Mare:
Very old are the woods;
And the buds that break
Out of the briar’s boughs,
When March winds wake,
So old with their beauty are --
Oh, no man knows
Through what wild centuries
Roves back the rose.
Very old are the brooks;
And the rills that rise
Where snows sleep cold beneath
The azure skies
Sing such a history
Of come and gone,
Their every drop is as wise
Very old are we men;
Our dreams are tales
Told in dim Eden
By Eve’s nightingales;
We wake and whisper awhile,
But, the day gone by,
Silence and sleep like fields
Of amaranth lie.
(Walter de la Mare, "All That’s Past," Collected Poems, 1901-1918 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., Inc., 1941) , I, 128.)
Or, finally, this in the thought and austere lyricism of T. S. Eliot:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
(T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 [New York: Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1952] , p. 144.)
The new preaching situation, were one exhaustively to catalog the elements that constitute it, would require a long essay. Attention would have to be given to issues of a biblical, historical, and theological kind which in their number and complexity torment the mind of the responsible preacher of the gospel. From Q to Qumran is one axis; and along it are strung the conclusions and constructions that every student knows by the names of Strauss, Ritschl, Herrmann, Harnack, Schweitzer, Dodd, and Bultmann. From Comte to Carnap is a second axis; and along it, troubling the mind with possibilities of basic error and exultant with hermeneutical possibilities for fresh articulation of kerygmatic eventful truth, are strung the philosophical, social, and linguistic analyses that every student knows by the names of Kierkegaard, Weber, Troeltsch, Dilthey, Marx, Freud, and the current practitioners of the meaning of meaning.
But we have been, let us assume, through all of that. These and other mentors have warned and instructed, demolished and rebuilt our understanding of the production and transmission of the biblical text, and have made us aware of the multitudinous forces that have thudded it into its received form. We are aware also of the career of this record in the history of the church, and of the oceans of ecclesiological, dogmatic, ethical, devotional, mystical discourse that have been engendered by analysis and contemplation of it. The sum of all of this is the substantial ecology of the faith of the Christian church at this moment -- the moment when, with this record of the gospel of Jesus Christ before us, we stand up to preach.
In order to make concrete that preaching situation let us assume further that I am a preacher in a church which owns and honors the liturgical tradition, and as a major obedience to that tradition does not deliver over to me -- for exploitation according to my ambulatory penchants or enthusiasms -- a merely religious occasion, but has from of old designated this Sunday as the second Sunday in Advent. In most American Protestant parishes the old lectionaries are, to be sure, not followed; but to point that out has really nothing to do with the difficulty I want presently to expound. For these lectionaries include within their various sections -- Gospel, Epistle, Introit, and Gradual -- a large body of the most memorable and central addresses of the scriptures to the worshipping generations in the church. If one is not stuck with Luke 21:25-36 on the second Sunday of Advent he is not thereby released from the thundering New Testament words about the signs of the times, the invasive and convulsive power of the kingdom, the perils of drunkenness and stupidity in the midst of crises which are rich in threats of damnation and promises of redemption. And if one is not stuck with Rom. 15:4-13 on this December Sunday, he can hardly avoid being stuck with it sometime -- particularly since the sheer black hopelessness of men and the world cries aloud for some sober word; and even the churches at Evanston in 1954 affirmed that the Lord of the church is the hope of the world! The degree to which the waning authority of the lectionary has enabled the Protestant clergy to exercise so bland a selectivity within the corpus of New Testament utterances is a matter I observe but do not dilate upon.
It is, then, the second Sunday in Advent. As we attend now to what is being announced, affirmed, and pleaded for in the propers appointed for this day, have in mind the sheer magnitude of ecological richness and balance, the sheer allusive opulence which is presupposed as the matrix in which communication is ensconced. The Introit for the day is as follows: "Daughter of Zion: behold thy Salvation cometh. The Lord shall cause His glorious voice to be heard: and ye shall have gladness of heart. Give ear, O shepherd of Israel: Thou that leadest Joseph like a flock."
The tonality of the entire issue, and all the parts of it, is there resoundingly struck. The Gospel lesson is going to speak presently of the terrible "things that are coming on the earth" and of the new thing -- ". . . that the kingdom of heaven is nigh at hand." But men are called to in this fateful and choice-laden situation by no inert holiness ossified in his own perfections. Singing out in advance of the judgment, designating as love and pursuit the God with whom we have to do, soaring like a steady motif over all that is said of our situation in the Gospel, and grounding like a continuo the complex argument in the Epistle, come the infinitely tender words of the Introit. The Word of God is not thrown like a stone; rather is it, as Isaiah says, ". . laid to the heart of Jerusalem." "Daughter of Zion: behold thy salvation cometh" as a father to a longed for child-daughter! And as an active lover to his own city, wrought out over the covenant centuries for his glorious habitation. The fundamental nature of this seeking and salvation-bringing God and his historically authenticated resolution is lyrical acknowledged in the final line of the Introit, "Give Ear, O Shepherd of Israel: Thou that leadest Joseph like a flock."
It may be possible to announce that action of God in that kind of a relation to that kind of recalcitrance in nonallusive, propositional tonal speech. And I am convinced, further, that the effort must be made. For the erosion that has gouged and gullied the fields of the vocabulary of faith is deep and impoverishing. And no man is ready to make an attack upon that problem who has not in sadness and clarity taken the measure of it. Let us not underestimate what is involved when we so easily assert that new ways must be found to make old affirmations! What precisely is involved is suggested in a section of a lecture, "On Reading the Bible," by Arthur Quiller-Couch: (On the Art of Reading [New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920], pp.145f.)
Although men do not go to the stake for the cadences, the phrases of our Authorized Version, it remains true that these cadences, these phrases, have for three hundred years exercised most powerful effect upon their emotions. They do so by association of ideas, by the accreted memories of our race enwrapping connotation around a word, a name -- say the name Jerusalem, or the name Sion:
"And they that wasted us, required of us mirth, saying,
Sing to us one of the Songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning!"
It must be known to you, Gentlemen, that these words can affect men to tears who never connect them in thought with the actual geographical Jerusalem; who connect it in thought merely with a quite different native home from which they are exiles. Here and there some one man may feel a similar emotion over Landor’s
Tanagra, think not I forget. . . ,
But the word Jerusalem will strike twenty men twenty-fold more poignantly: for to each it names the city familiar in spirit to his parents when they knelt, and to their fathers before them: not only the city which was his nursery and yet lay just beyond the landscape seen from its window; its connotation includes not only what the word "Rome" has meant, and ever must mean, to thousands on thousands setting eyes for the first time on The City: but it holds, too, some hint of the new Jerusalem, the city of twelve gates before the vision of which St. John fell prone:
Ah, my sweet home, Hierusalem,
Would God I were in thee
Thy Gardens and thy gallant walks
Continually are green:
There grows such sweet and pleasant flowers
As nowhere else are seen.
Quite through the streets with pleasant sound
The flood of Life doth flow;
Upon whose banks on every side
The wood of Life doth grow . . .
The process there so movingly described has gone on now for a long time, and its effects are general. But I want now to indicate three facts which I have encountered in my experience as a teacher, who, because he came to that function by way of the parish ministry, has never been able to have an immediate and lively sense of vocation save in relation to the church and its teaching and preaching obedience. Because, therefore, I see these three facts so deeply determinative among theological students in particular, but generally evident in this generation as a whole, I devote the remainder of this lecture to a description of them:
1) The Tyranny of the Self
A long time ago St. Augustine affirmed that it was because of sin that man was deflected in his desire from his true end, the love of God, and . . . . . curved inward upon himself . . ." perversely given to the self as an adequate end. Insofar as that is a true description of the general pattern of egocentricity that characterizes all men there is no great illumination in remarking that this generation is so disposed. What is new is that an in-curvature which has traditionally been viewed in Christian pedagogy as a disposition to be overcome is among many in our day jubilantly cultivated as a way of redemption! There is a difference between regarding the self as a theatre of redemption and regarding the recovery of the self as the substance of redemption.
The term under which this absorption with the self is most commonly cultivated is existentialism. The historians of philosophical, theological, and literary existentialism will properly protest that the filching of the term by the self-absorbed is not only unwarranted but actually begets confusion. Soren Kierkegaard would certainly be astonished to know that his lifelong wrestling with God’s angel was presently being interpreted in the categories of the personality sciences. St. Paul would certainly be astonished to hear the passionate inwardness of the vocabulary used to describe the relentlessness of God’s Christly pursuit of man reduced to merely psychological categories.
The tyranny of which I am speaking is not lessened by niceties of designation. The reality of it is this: that we incline to define ourselves, take the measure of our actuality, admit as educative and civilizing, acknowledge as relevant and powerful -- only that in experience or reflection which is authenticated by its occurrence within the biographical brackets of the self’s existence. What is actually accomplished by this determination to admit as personal only what is authenticated as individual and inwardly certified is a radical reduction of the potencies for self-knowledge. For the self exists within an ecological matrix; and the address to, the description of, and the evangelical promises to the Christian self are embedded in that ecological web which is the faith of the Christian church. It is not necessary for the deepening and amplification of my understanding of what it means to become and be a Christian that I inwardly respond with incandescent recognition to every member of that "mighty cloud of witness" who, in the imagery of the letter to the Hebrews, surround and support my Christian race. It may in fact be a mighty gift to the self that it hear other selves in the stadium of the church catholic who make sounds of praise and joy which are as yet, and may remain, unattested within the cubicle of its own experience. One can acknowledge that he is unacquainted with what Paul meant when he said "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me", and at the same time have his individual existence broken open to fact by the assumption that the man knew what he was talking about, meant what he said, and lived out and died out the affirmation.
The extent to which men of this generation are absorbed with themselves and permit that absorption to filter the accumulated masses of human experience and utterance is a formidable fact in teaching and in preaching. In a course which I share with a colleague, a lecture was in progress dealing with pre-Chalcedonian alternatives to the statement there declared by the church. In the course of an exposition of the Nestorian position, justly illuminated with reference to strands in the New Testament witness to Christ which have made adoptionism an inevitable temptation, the lecturer was interrupted by the impatient protest of a student, "But Doc, I can’t interiorize this stuff!"
This visceral authentication of the relevance of the history of doctrine would be merely humorous were it not symptomatic of something that is not humorous; and one could be patient with phases of development marked by fascinated picking away at the gossamer peculiarities of one’s own insides if the damage wrought were not so extensive. The extent of that damage is apparent in much preaching of the gospel. Preaching becomes primarily personal, the history of the church becomes an anecdotal arsenal useful for its supply of supportive items. The "mighty deeds of God" are transformed into such interior "patterns of sensibility" as are readily marketable, and the mighty TE DEUM of the people of God becomes trivialized into a "worship experience."
2) The Tyranny of Boundlessness
When the theme of the second assembly of the World Council of Churches was announced, and more acutely when the preliminary study document was made available to the churches in North America, there was a curious reaction. The reaction was compounded of bafflement, annoyance, and impatience. Some were baffled by the declaration that nothing less than Jesus Christ was the hope of the world, for were there not broader, more generally "religious" and less radical sources for hope? Others were annoyed because they regarded this blunt statement as a frantic oversimplification of Christian theology, a retreat into pre-enlightenment piety. Others were impatient because they believed themselves allied with redemptive powers and possibilities whose adequacy was threatened by this identification of hope with so scandalous a historical particularity.
One does not take the measure of this reaction if he ascribes it merely to the fact that theological discourse in the United States has not had the role in intellectual life that characterizes European Christendom, or to the fact that we are a practical and activist people. There is that in our entire American experience on this continent which has deeply informed our self-consciousness. One might call it the mood of the illimitable. Frederick Jackson Turner, early in this century, inaugurated an epoch in American historiography with his essay, The Frontier in American History. This historian affirmed that the particular quality of American historical thought and action was to be explained from the perspective of the frontier. His argument was impressive, and the implications of it have left untouched no inquiries into the American character.
In the following paragraphs an effort will be made to investigate whether and to what extent the mood of the boundless, so characteristic of the American spirit, constitutes a kind of soft and yielding tyranny into which the eschatological and bounded finalities of the gospel are absorbed without great effect. I have called this tyranny soft and yielding not by any means to suggest that it has not power and peril, but rather to pull into focus the kind of peril it is. A hard, tough, resistant surface is always more satisfying to fling the gospel at! There is impact and decisiveness in the thud of a ball against a brick wall. But to throw a ball into, let us say, a heap of cotton batting is an experience of quite another kind. The thing is unresistingly received, swallowed up, blandly absorbed as a part of the heap. And there is no thud. Is it possible to account for this mood, observe characteristic expressions of it, and assess what it means for our preaching?
Turner’s essay called into question all the previous perspectives from which the events and the patterns of American life had been presented. These perspectives were generally oriented to the European continent, and hence saw the peculiar developments of American life and institutions in terms of unusual, to be sure, but continuous extensions of European life. American history was Colonial history. American politics was a marginal activity in European politics. American economic institutions were modifications of European institutions. (For discussion of this and other ideas in American historiology, see J. H. Randall and G. Haines, Controlling Assumptions in the Practice of American Historians (Social Science Research Council Bulletin 54  , p. 25.)
This perspective does rough justice to wide areas of American life, and for a period of two hundred years or so after the first settlements it serves to make intelligible many activities on the new continent. But what was neither seen clearly nor enunciated precisely before Turner’s essay was the deepening impropriety of this perspective as the nineteenth century unfolded. Such a perspective made sense of the Revolution of these colonies against Great Britain; it did not make sense of the Whisky Rebellion. This perspective was useful in doing justice to many aspects of the personal character and historical role of George Washington; it made less and less sense when confronted with the figures of Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
It is proposed here to speak of the development of the American self-consciousness in such terms as to take seriously Turner’s thesis: that the blunt fact of the existence for many decades of a frontier in American history is a dominant factor in the content of America’s self-consciousness. And inasmuch as any basic Christian affirmation is molded to the vital energies which work upon it in any nation or country, it ought to be possible to gain insight into the fact that classical Christian eschatology is interpreted in present American life in a peculiar way. This insight will be sought in the following inquiry.
The frontier was for many generations of Americans the symbol of the illimitable. For centuries before the white man established settlements in New England, at the mouth of the Hudson, in the Virginia Tidewater, and in the Carolinas, the living space of European peoples had been divided among the nations. These borders to be sure were in rather frequent flux and large movements of people were in process. But the space was a "given"! The North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, were unrelenting borders. And to the east, the non-European peoples -- Mongols, Huns, Turks, later the Russians -- constituted an effective barrier. This barrier, indeed, was often penetrated, and European literature from Marco Polo to Hakluyt shimmers with the mystery and possibility of these peoples and lands. But as regards its bearing upon the European spirit the East could not exercise effective force.
The situation in North America was completely and profoundly different. The early communities which hugged the Eastern shore lived their lives, did their work, and were subtly shaped in their thinking by the fact that what was settled was not what was available. Arching pervasively over the established situation was the knowledge that the West stretched out beyond like an illimitable sea. One has only to read the sermons of the early New England divines to remark how often and how eloquently this huge land, unknown in detail but known to be there, supplied illustrations for those passages in the sermon which required pictorial language to nail down a sermonic point.
The seemingly illimitability of the American land was not an isolated factor in the early American consciousness; it was a pervasive form of that consciousness. Our literature, the clearest confessional of our national self-consciousness, is permeated through and through with the mood of the vastness of the setting of the American enterprise. The journals of the Mathers, the Cottons, the Endicotts in New England, the travel diaries of Crevecoeur, the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, the essays and public addresses of Ralph Waldo Emerson -- all of these breathe an air which blows in from the open frontier. The very form of American humor in the nineteenth century is revealed by analysis to owe its vitality to this same situation. It is broad rather than witty, obvious and ribald rather than delicate and sly. It depends for its delight not upon the situations and ambiguities of the drawing room, the cultivated folk of the city, but upon the exaggerations, the trickeries, the buffooneries, and the fantastic human types so richly produced by the conventionless frontier. Mark Twain is America’s artist of the ridiculous.
At a more sober and contemplative level one finds that Amen-can efforts to articulate the promise and hope of the young nation’s role and place in history are informed by the language-shaping vastness of this illimitable land. Several instances will serve to illustrate how the breadth and the sweep of the midland prairies, the terrifying distances, the huge lakes and mighty rivers have imparted to the American dream a boldness of conception and an almost gargantuan excess of rhetoric.
About the middle of the nineteenth century Herman Melville, a New Yorker of Dutch descent, published his greatest novel. In the following passage it is not difficult to feel how the open illimitable frontier character of the American experience is taken as a clue to moral interpretation of man generally. It is a tribute to the power of this feeling that Melville -- who almost alone among mid-nineteenth century men of letters in America pierced through the general moral optimism of the expansive spirit of the time, revealing in powerful fictional characters the ambiguities, the tensions, and the dark depths of evil and delusion -- that Melville should have written these sentences. In them is the authentic note, later to come to full expression, that in the nascent American democracy was the solvent for man’s immemorial problems, the answer to his whole dream of freedom and worth:
. . . it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valor in the soul. Men may seem detestable as joint stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meager faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone, bleeds with keenest anguish at the spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this dignity I treat of is not the dignity of kings and robes but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike, that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality. ( (Herman Melville, Moby Dick [New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1930] , p. 166)
Several decades later another Easterner, Walt Whitman, shattered the reigning forms of poetical expression and in a flood of tumultuous verse wrought out a voice for America’s vague but deep and powerful feeling for her national character and promise. In his poetry, place names and common terms for common products of land and mine and forest are strung into melodious sequences that exercise the force of an incantation. The result is to produce -- out of the sheer overwhelming rhythm of names that suggest space and scope, richness and distance -- the intoxication of the illimitable. That this illimitable forward-leaning vitality foresees concrete achievements and conquests that are of doubtful moral significance is nothing to the point.
Land of coal and iron! land of gold! land of cotton, sugar, rice!
Land of wheat, beef, pork! land of wool and hemp! land of
the apple and the grape!
Land of the pastoral plains, the grass-fields of the world!
Land of those sweet-air’d interminable plateaus!
Expanding and swift, henceforth,
Elements, breeds, adjustments, turbulent, quick and audacious,
A world primal again, vistas of glory incessant and branching,
A new race dominating previous ones and grander far, with new contests,
New politics, new literatures and religions, new inventions and
("Starting from Paumonok," Leaves of Grass [New York: Aventine Press, 1931] , pp. 23 ff.)
A second poem from Walt Whitman is instructive in this: that here the generality of the foregoing piece is given concreteness from the actual anecdotal record of the century of the winning of the West, and because there is revealed how the irremediable facts of limit, end, death are burned away in the sheer incandescence of the song of conquest and assertion.
Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O Pioneers!
Have the elder races halted!
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there
beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O Pioneers!
All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us.
Pioneers! O Pioneers!
They are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We are today’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers, O Pioneers!
("Pioneers, O Pioneers!" ibid., pp. 236 ff.)
In an introduction to a collection of lyrical passages from the novels of Thomas Wolfe, John Hall Wheelock compares him to Whitman, ". . . whose vision of America and the American continent he shared. The American spirit and the American earth of our day as distinguished from the spirit and earth of any other land or time, these are the major themes of Wolfe’s writing, and it is as a poet that he articulates them. In so doing he has given many Americans a fresh sense of their country." (Wheelock [ed.], The Face of a Nation, Poetical passages from the writing of Thomas Wolfe (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939) , p.v.
This third writer who expresses the illimitable as a pervasive and formative presence in the American mind is selected not only for what he wrote but because of when he wrote it. Thomas Wolfe was no frontiersman. He was born in North Carolina and lived most of his life in the East; for the longest period of his mature life in New York City. The following selection from Wolfe is given here to advance the argument that the illimitable as a mood of the mind persists within men who have never seen a geographical frontier, and far beyond generations for whose history it was a palpable fact. The fact of the frontier is not gravely enough calculated if, as many historians have assumed, the effect of it upon concrete political developments, forms of community life, institutions, has been observed, measured, and recorded. For the American man the frontier is a way of viewing the human enterprise and a way of interpreting the life of the traveler. It is a way of seeing long after it has something to see. Writing of men in an old section of the South that he knew so well Wolfe writes: "He is not a colonist, a settler, a transplanted European; during his three centuries there in the wilderness he has become native to the immense and lonely land that he inhabits; during those three centuries he has taken on the sinew and the color of that earth, he has acquired a character, a tradition, a history of his own . . he is there in the ranks of the American Revolution, and eighty years later he is there, gloriously but silently in the ranks of the Civil War. But his real history is much longer and much more extraordinary than could be indicated by these flares of war; it is a history that runs back three centuries into primitive America, a strange and unfathomable history that is touched by something dark and supernatural, and that goes back through poverty and hardship, through solitude and loneliness and death and unspeakable courage, into the wilderness."
Another facet of this mood of the boundless is revealed when one ponders the role of technology in modern American life. Among us technology as a way of life is joyfully cultivated by a people who retain a frontier mentality long after the physical frontier has vanished. There is something strange in the joy and eagerness with which the "technization" of existence is exercised in America. This strangeness is understood when one comes to see that the spirit that conquered a huge land is a spirit continuous with that which today plays with technics as a previous generation made a game out of felling trees, shucking corn, and plowing fields.
For the common man in America the basic physical inquiries which gave birth to technology, and the philosophical ideas which attended its development, are of little concern. Technology for him is rather a stronger and a longer and a more supple arm to conquer a wilderness with! His judgment of its "goodness" is pragmatic; his delight in it is akin to sheer uncritical boyishness. For in technology and its possibility to enhance and expand the forms of life this man sees a new wilderness to conquer, new lands to settle, new problems to solve, new frontiers to push back and be exultant over.
That simple and uncritical acclaim should surround the advance of technology in America is evidence of the spirit that has never had to come to terms with boundaries, limits, ends. When one county was settled and the best land taken up, American history records that the new waves of people pushing up from the East went through to the next county. There, when once the trees were felled, the land cleared, was an abundance of rich earth for man’s taking. That land is now cut up into organized states and most of it is settled. The farther ocean has been reached. But the promise of technology itself is seen in the American mind as a new "illimitable" that evokes from this people a response whose inward character is identical with the response of their fathers. A "new frontier" has come into view. and the excitement and the challenge of it is similarly greeted.
The entire experience of the peoples of America has created and nurtured a world view which stands over against the world view of the Bible in sharpest possible opposition. For "Eschatology is the doctrine concerned with the limits and boundaries of our living, in time and existence, toward which at every moment our whole lives tend." (R. Calhoun, "Christ: The Hope of the World," published in the official proceedings of the World Council of Churches, second assembly Evanston, Illinois: August 15, 1954) In this statement is recollected a central affirmation of the scriptures that man’s life, in solitude and in history, is found and held within the hand of God; that operating within history, and dramatically at the consummation of history, is the judging and restoring activity of history’s God. There is a limit which stands not only at the end of human life as death, but which is built into the structure of human life by virtue of its creaturely character. All birth and development, all unfolding and enterprise, all moral vision and achievement are not only enfolded within this limit but receive their urgent character from it. Here is a "given" time, a "given" space, a "given" possibility. Within the boundaries of this "given" there are, to be sure, vast and absolutely crucial possibilities for affirmation or denial, hearing or deafness, decision or stasis -- but no elaboration of these possibilities can avoid the limit of sin and of death.
The character of a people’s life experience determines to some degree the permeability of their spirit to this Word. When the historical experience of the whole people is interpreted in such a way as to affirm the illimitable by virtue of an open frontier existing for a long period of their history, then it surely follows that that declaration of the eschatological character of all existence will not easily address them with quick and intelligible meaning. Precisely this is the situation among millions of Americans. For many of them a frontier situation has been transmuted from a fact of national history into a point of view in the mind. Only in recognition of the power of this inheritance can one understand the reception, bordering upon the charge of total irrelevance, with which many even within the churches regard the entire range of biblical eschatological teaching.
The eschatological reality becomes congruent with and partially confirmed in a man’s life experience when absolute limits, boundaries, inescapable facts confront him in the realization of his personal, social, and national experience. These lessons can be evaded or their meaning dimmed when the "given" in practical experience is not absolute. When, for instance, as has been true for American generations, an intolerable, unsatisfactory, or restricting life situation began to press too hard, the frontier offered an escaping option. There has always been an "out there," an open, raw, malleable theater wherein patterns of desire dreamed of realization in forms nearer to the heart. To uproot the thousand continuities of one’s life and settle in a wilderness required courage, decisiveness, resolution, ingenuity, and a huge output of activity. Hence the development of these qualities in the American national character. But in virtue of this same uprooting and transplanting career the occasion for the cultivation of another set of qualities has been successfully evaded. The realities of "limit" and "boundary," the spirit-educating forces that operate when one cannot move on, or start anew, but must come to terms with life where it is and where it is bound to remain -- these forces have not deeply entered into the American national consciousness.
There are evidences, however, that the facts of America’s new and responsible involvement in the revolutions, the agonies, the undeferrable decisions of the world is making her mind deepeningly permeable to the eschatological. Our debt to contemporary European scholarship in which biblical theological categories are freshly used as interpreters of the meaning of history is a large and growing debt. While, to be sure, the effect of such work is presently restricted to faculties and students in universities and schools of theology, the profound change in process will inevitably be projected in the preached and taught messages of the churches.
The question whether, short of concrete national tragedies, the frontier delusion of contemporary American can be translated into a realistic comprehension of man’s bounded life, a strong and faithful obedience to God as he confronts us with hard tasks in the actual world where tyranny, brutality, aggressive nihilism is consolidating its bloody conquest, must await the evidence of the coming years.
3) The Tyranny of Opaque Language
By developing the various themes in this first lecture (indeed our entire discussion) under the large figure of Ecology a general intention is clearly stated: to argue that faith comes to exist in the vast and complex totality of a man’s life, that faith as engendered by the Word of God works upon, makes use of, reillumines and reinterprets the total geography of existence. The proclamation of the Faith, and its transmission, must therefore operate within no narrower dimensions than the wild unsystematic of actual life. The theatre of redemption is the theatre of creation; anything has overt or covert influences upon everything; the beetles under the bark are the apprehension that furrows the brow that watches the untrapped waters destroy the town. Therefore I will discuss for a moment a third tyranny that characterizes the preaching situation.
Language, in its scope and style, takes on the color of the preoccupation of an age. If an age is marked by what one observer has called "the thingification of man" the speech of the age will both record what is happening and make articulate the cries of hurt wrung out of the monstrous process. For speech is the primary carrier of culture and its form follows man’s career with an absolute seriousness. When grammar is sprung and words writhe, when images make leaps that baffle and astound, there is something other and something more wrong than can be ascribed merely to the disposition of the queer to be experimental.
People are round and have depth. And when their common language, used to do business in a technically preoccupied age, is shaped to the paucity of dimensions necessary to such business, the roundness and the depth become silent for want of verbal counterparts for the felt but inchoate self. Technical speech is a very efficient instrument. It is designative, precise, singular, flat, non-allusive; naming a certain device a cathode ray occilograph tells the company of operators exactly what it is and does. But such language is not only deficient for "Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn," it is useless to express how a man feels when he has been sullen with his wife! or to catch the little sad hint of mutability and pathos that crosses his mind when he goes back to a class reunion!
We are urged on every side to bring our speech into conformity with the common language of our world, to avoid expressions that do not ‘‘communicate,’’ to be careful lest we suggest to the mind other than a rearrangement of its present content. Even if this were advisable (which it isn’t) , it is not possible. For preaching of the gospel is a declaration before it is our exhortation. It proclaims a madly holy arrangement for human lostness before it promises a power whereby the rearrangement of man’s disordered house is possible. It deals with the significance of events in such a sequence as flat, episodic reportage cannot serve. Its promises are not wrung out of problems -- although their lure is made sharp there -- but out of Godly performances celebrated in the devotion of the church. The designative language of nature cannot contain the substance of Grace. But it can point, remember, celebrate, and hope. This is why, in the next lecture, I want to deal with certain imperatives for preaching that seem to me to arise out of the current concern of the churches for the kind of theological reflection which seeks to do justice to the kind of community the church knows herself to be.