Chapter 2: God: The Creator and Redeemer
Two Christian versions of the course of human history were sketched in broad strokes in the first chapter. Both these interpretations fail, we argued, to do justice to the Christian experience of redemption. There is a work of God which makes possible a new life in which the disorder, sin, and tragedy of our existence are borne in faith, and begin to be overcome. Therefore we must consider a third version of the way of God with man. It involves the assertion of the real possibility of a new life which is born out of the encounter of the sinner with God’s mercy. It involves another conception of the meaning of the tragic course of human history. Here a new ground for hope, the only ground, as I believe, for ultimate hope, is found.
Our problem is to give an account of man’s life when seen from the viewpoint of the Christian experience of redemption. But every theological assertion raises the question of the basis on which it is made. This is the problem of evidence, of the tests of truth. We must make clear the conception of Christian truth which underlies our argument. It should be said that my main concern in this book is not with theological method but with one issue in Christian theology, namely, how we are to interpret the Gospel hope of redemption. Such a problem can be discussed fruitfully within the Christian Church, using the Christian words, and referring to the common body of Christian experience, even among those who may differ on the problem of the tests of Christian truth. It has been truly said, for example, that no one can read Reinhold Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures without coming to know himself better because of Niebuhr’s profound insight into human nature. This holds whether or not one agrees with Niebuhr’s theological method at all points. Yet it is true that the problem of truth is involved in all fundamental discussion. I shall be as explicit as possible about the presuppositions concerning how we know what we know, and the general philosophical ideas in relation to which this interpretation of the Christian faith is developed.
This reference just made to philosophical presuppositions identifies our thought with one type of Christian theology and cuts across the dominant tendency in the neo-orthodox movement, where philosophy is wholly rejected by theology as in Barth, or is given a merely peripheral role as in Brunner, and, to a lesser extent, in Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr. It may contribute to clarity if I make here the flat statement that I believe all Christian theology without exception involves general ideas about the world, and about man. These ideas are drawn from our human experience, and when given a critical analysis and elaborated, they are philosophical concepts. Such terms as "world," "eternal," "good," and indeed, "guilt, "sin," "God," are not the exclusive possession of the Christian vocabulary. The ideas for which they stand bring Christian theology into organic relation with all human experience. It can be shown that beginning with the Bible itself, down through the theology of Luther to that of Barth general philosophical ideas have entered into the substance and structure of the Christian mind. Luther cannot be understood without Occam, Brunner cannot be understood without Kierkegaard, Barth cannot be understood without Kant? This is not to say that philosophy drawn from general human experience controls theology. Christian experience is unique. It has its own integrity and its distinctive source of insight in a particular historical experience. Concepts like guilt and conversion do not mean the same thing in Christian speech as they do in Hindu mysticism or in a clinic for psychoanalysis. Christian thought need never be subservient to or identified with some particular philosophical doctrine or system. But Christian thought can never be expressed without making use of the general concepts which it is the business of philosophy to clarify and criticize. Theologians ought to be as self-conscious as possible concerning the philosophical presuppositions which they use as they interpret the Christian faith. If this is not done these presuppositions are not eliminated. They remain hidden and uncriticized.1
Two general notions are presupposed in all that follows in our interpretation of redemption. The first involves the conception of God which emerges when God is interpreted in a metaphysics of process as over against a metaphysics of static being; the other involves the principle that all knowledge, without exception, is derived from a critical interpretation of what is given in human experience.
"That which thou canst comprehend is not God," says St. Augustine, and one can only say, Amen.2 No system of metaphysics can exhaust the meaning of God for us or answer all our questions about the mode of His being. But the Creator God of Christian theology is involved in basic structures which underlie everything that is, so that we ought to be able to find traces of His presence in this moving scheme of things. God is present to us as that reality which makes it possible for the world to exist, and for it to be a world in which living, conscious, responsible beings can find meaning, freedom, and worth in life.
Under the impact of modern science our world view has been shifting in the past three hundred years. A new metaphysical orientation has emerged. It finds varied expression in the philosophies of Whitehead, Bergson, Wieman, Hartshorne and others, in which the concept of process is held to be the most general and fundamental idea which we can apply to anything we know. To be anything is to be an active functioning reality entering into dynamic relations with other things. Now a philosophical theology which takes process as its basic category has one supreme advantage over the metaphysical systems in which Christian thought has traditionally been expressed. This philosophy makes it possible for the Living God, the God who acts, the caring, saving God of the Bible to be made intelligible. The liberal theology has never yet been given sufficient credit for having taken the new science -- the new world view of the nineteenth century, the conception of growth and evolving life -- and trying to reconceive the nature of God so as to make His relation to such a world intelligible. To think of God as acting in dynamic relation to His creatures not merely as one actor among many, but as the universal creative power which sustains all things, and without which they could neither be nor act, is true to what our best knowledge of the world tells us. It is true to the insight of the Bible, which the philosophical tradition has tended to obscure behind the impassive mask of absolute, static being.
On this point there is considerable agreement in contemporary Protestant theology, even among those who claim to reject all philosophic approach to the knowledge of God. To put the same point in theological terms, the immutability and the impassivity of God are notions which hide from us the creative loving God. The doctrine that only the human nature of Jesus and not the divine nature suffered on the cross is a Catholic dogma against which the inward spirit of Protestant thought rebels. Emil Brunner is one of those who hold that the Christian doctrine of creation is not to be interpreted as a general philosophic concept; but he surely is stating the same point we have made when he says:
The created world is not simply the world, but the world-from-God, the world in which God is present and operating. . . . There is no divine creation which is not as such also a divine manifestation and a divine presence at work.3
When we say that something of the nature of God is disclosed to us in the basic order of things which embraces our human life, the problem of the transcendence and immanence of God in relation to the world is immediately involved. The conception of God as immanent in the world order was one of the ideas by which nineteenth-century theology sought to get God back into the world from which a strictly Darwinian interpretation of the natural processes would seem to have excluded Him. But what it can mean to say that God is immanent in the world without an intolerable spatializing of the concept was never made clear.
It is difficult to think of either immanence or transcendence without falling into such crude and irrelevant conceptions as "being spatially contained in," "being outside of." Professor Karl Heim’s God Transcendent might be thought to offer some help as he brilliantly shows how the concept of transcendence and its related concept, that of a boundary, can be applied to relations between persons. The boundary between I and Thou is something more than a line between the spaces we occupy. But in the last pages of his work Heim declares that God’s transcendence of the world is entirely different from all meanings of transcendence drawn from human experience. How has it helped Heim as theologian then to have gone through the whole philosophical discussion of transcendence since theology can make nothing of it? This question about Heim’s position has been incisively raised by Miss Dorothy M. Emmet in her excellent The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking.4
In contrast to Heim I am asserting that concepts drawn from our human experience do illuminate God’s way of being in relation to us. Evidence is found in the analysis of transcendence and immanence which Professor Charles Hartshorne has made. He shows how the metaphysics of process can resolve some of the ancient problems. He says:
I deny that any traditional definition of transcendence -- or, for that matter, of immanence -- is unambiguous. According to current metaphysics every individual is immanent in and transcends all others, and the transcendence and immanence of God is the supreme case of this double relation.5
To exist as a real thing is surely to possess some measure of independence, some "self-hood" which prevents absolute domination by other things. This is true of every atom of existence. This particular atom is unique, and not even God makes it something that it is not. But every individual in so far as things enter into mutually determinative relations, enters into the determination of the constitution of everything else. 6
To transcend something is to be independent of it, to be immanent in something is to have one’s own being enter directly into the constitution of that thing. As Professor Hartshorne has brilliantly shown, the consequences of this analysis for our thought of God’s relationship to the world are far-reaching. The God who is the supreme determinant of the nature of all things, entering into their very constitution sustains the relation of immanence to every creature. But it is equally true to say that God transcends every creature, in a way which is incomparably greater than their ‘independence of him." For God does not depend upon any particular creatures for His own being. He is the ground of the metaphysical order which makes all particular creatures possible.7
This formulation of the doctrine of transcendence and immanence, shows, I think, why the statement that "God is in us" is not appropriate in theology. It would seem to identify God with some human tendency, or aspect of our being, for example -- with the will to the good in man, as Professor Garnett has it.8 This is not only an erroneous notion, but is dangerous to religion, as will be shown in the argument that follows. God is indeed in us, in the sense that His goodness and power enter into the determination of our life and action. Our goodness is a response to His, and exists only in dependence upon it. But God’s goodness is never to be identified with our will and our ideals as they are. Immanence means "entering into the determination of," not "identification with." What may seem like an abstract problem in metaphysics here becomes a most practical issue in the Christian life. The subtle temptation to worship ourselves, to identify our ideals and plans with God’s good is just what the contemporary Barthian protest so rightly challenges in the liberal theology. But a more careful analysis of the conception of God’s immanence shows that we can make a radical distinction between God and ourselves without falling into the error of making a complete separation between Him and His creatures.
All metaphysical formulations are difficult, and lead to further discussion. But the fundamental pattern of our thought about God is, I trust, becoming clear. The God who saves us is neither the wholly transcendent absolute, the unmoved mover, nor is He merely the inward working power among other powers of the simple theology of immanence. He is what He is, in His own integrity, the everlasting source of all being and good, present in every moment of the world’s life, determining it as fully as it can be determined in the light of the fact that out of His love He has set His creatures free, and will not destroy their freedom.
This conception of God leads us directly to the second of our basic presuppositions, that which concerns our knowledge of God. The God who is present to us can be known through our direct experience of Him. This is a radical assertion. It establishes the resemblance of our standpoint to some types of Christian thought, and cuts us off sharply from others. We certainly cannot make any such claim without analyzing it carefully and without recognizing the real difficulties involved.
In simplest statement, the position of the experiential theology is that we know God in the same fundamental manner that we know anything else: by interpreting our immediate experience to discover what realities are impinging upon us. We know a chair, for example, by having a direct experience of the chair as it enters into our field of vision and of touch. We do not experience merely the idea of the chair as the idealists have it, nor the essence of some third entity between us and the chair as the critical realists have it. We experience this particular chair as it exists in the swirling field of force which impinges upon us and causes us to see, feel, perhaps alter our path. This is realism, naïve if you like, but it is the most plausible and down-to-earth assumption we can make. Further, no refinement of philosophical criticism has shown that it is an erroneous assumption. Our position departs from naïve realism in this, however, that we see the chair in perspective. Our sense organs are selectors as well as perceptors. Or better -- perception is selection. Out of the mass of stimuli which comes to us, only those register in our awareness which can effectively enter into the constitution of such an organism as ours. There is much of the chair that escapes our senses, our knowledge. We know that. And we know that we can make mistakes, perhaps, think we see a chair when none is there. But this statement makes no sense, unless there is some way of finding out within the limits of human fallibility that there are times when we do not make a mistake.
Now this realistic theory gives us an analogy for our knowledge God. We know God when through a critical reflection upon our experience we discover impinging upon us that pervasive creative ground of our being which binds us to one another and to all things sharers in real good. I am agreeing with John Baillie in his sensitive treatment of this problem of knowledge of God:
I believe the view to be capable of defence that no one of the four subjects of our knowledge -- ourselves, our fellows, the corporeal world, and God -- is ever presented to us except in conjunction with all three of the others.9
If this be true, the problem of knowing God is that of discernment. We must so clarify our interpretation of what is presented to us in experience that we can begin to trace, however inadequately, the outlines of that which stands "beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things."10
While we contend that our knowledge of God is derived from experience just as is our knowledge of all other realities, there are two highly important respects in which our knowledge of God differs from all other knowledge. These differences need to be sharply set forth. In the first place, God is infinitely greater, more complex, more hidden, more beyond the grasp of our minds than any or all of His creatures. We do but touch the hem of His garment. If in our experience of the meanest flower that blows we are overawed with the mystery and the inexhaustible glory of this intricate bit of creation, how much more must we confess our inadequate understanding of God. It is true there is one point of human history where the obscure God becomes more luminous than anywhere else, in the face of Jesus Christ, and we shall speak of the significance of that knowledge in a moment. But here, too, we must say that the meaning of Jesus Christ is not for us simply and completely comprehensible. He is indeed the inexhaustible revelation of God. The tradition in Protestant theology of the "hiddenness" of God in Christ is truer to our Christian experience than is the objectively recognizable sign-performing God-Man of Roman Catholic theology.
The second special characteristic of our knowledge of God is that in Him we are seeking to know that reality which pervades all particular realities, and not something which is like the chair, limited to one locus in space and time. In one sense this would seem to make God easier to know than anything else. "Nearer is he than breathing, and closer than hands or feet." But even our commonest human experience tells us that the things which most pervade our experience -- the love of those about us, the deepest hopes which lure us, the all-embracing order of nature -- these just because they are ever present can remain mysteriously hidden, even forgotten. So also with God’s presence. Perhaps the best analogy is that with our experience of time and space. Surely if anything is omnipresent to our experience it is these two orders, yet to see them clearly for what they are has been very nearly the despair of all human philosophy. The whole history of philosophy can be written from the standpoint of the effort of man to clarify and integrate his conceptions of time and space as they enter into the constitution of the world. It is not an accident that in this story of philosophy, the problem of God has been closely related to the problem of space and time. In both cases we are seeking to grasp something which underlies the structure of the world. St. Augustine’s superb chapter (XI) in his Confessions is the classic example. As with the guidance of this supreme Christian philosopher we try to find our way into the mystery of time and its companion, memory, we feel at last that we are lying in the lap of God and looking up into the face of His eternity. We see a little. We know that God is there. We know what it means to be a creature, sharing in a creation which flows from a source which never ceases its active working. Yet we are perfectly ready to say with St. Augustine. "That which thou comprehendest, is not God," if comprehension means any complete and adequate grasp.
Our claim that we know God directly in experience can be made without presuming that this knowledge is easily had, or ever more than dimly possessed. We cannot prove God’s existence as we would that of the chair, saying lo here, lo there. How easy it is for man to overlook God! On this point I believe that John Baillie takes a mistaken position in the book already quoted. I have agreed with him that God is present to all experience; but it is not necessary to agree with him that "all men believe in God" if not with the top of their minds, certainly with the bottom of their hearts. It may be so, but it is surely an impossible thing to prove. What seems more likely is that disbelief in God is possible for man. God does not shout His presence at us.
One consequence of basic importance for Christian thought can be drawn from this analysis. Since God is the hidden, incomprehensible, infinitely difficult end of our human quest, whether or not we come to know Him depends ultimately upon whether God Himself so acts upon us that He produces the kind of sensitivity through which we can respond to Him.
The important implication for our interpretation of the Christian experience of God can now be summarily stated. We know God as present to us in all experience. But all our human knowing comes through particular experiences. We always experience in particular ways, here and now. In short our knowledge of anything is historical. It is derived from concrete happenings through which the real order of things is disclosed to us. Every happening can yield knowledge; but knowledge depends in part on the subjective element in our encounter with the world. Where there is no sensitivity there is no experience. We ourselves have to be equipped and transformed so that we can respond to what is given to us in our total experience. Our knowledge of God is the case par excellence of this necessity for sensitive discrimination and responsiveness. There are conditions of mind and spirit for recognizing the presence of God, as there are analogous conditions for recognizing the structure, the beauty, and the spirit of a symphony. But the question of what conditions we can specify for sensitivity to God’s reality is an exceedingly delicate one. One may rightly ask whether we can specify any conditions whatever. Some indeed appeal to us in these days who say it is only the despair of all human knowing and experience, which may open our minds to God.
There is a way of stating the case here. The search of the mystics for a discipline, a regimen by which the soul may mount to the vision of God, is a valid search. The pure in heart shall see God, and purity of heart is something which we can seek, and provide conditions for realizing. But where the mystical effort fails is in supposing that this human preparation in itself can bring us to see God, or even that as human effort it can bring us closer to God. That is a very great error. The danger is we forget our radical dependence upon God in all our knowing. All knowledge of God that is recognition -- and not merely cognition -- of His reality, is a gift which is given by the working of God Himself in our life.
One further statement about the discovery of God is necessary. That which gives us as Christians the possibility of recognizing God is the fact that we share in a living stream of historical experience in which God has disclosed Himself. This stream of experience begins with the Hebrew people. Its supreme events were the experiences of that people as interpreted by the prophets. The prophets were not infallible on matters of fact, or in political judgment, or even in religious insight. But they traced through the tragic life of their people the divine working of judgment, of healing, and of mercy, and they recognized the Lordship of the righteous God over all life. In Jesus of Nazareth the expectation of the Messiah received an unexpected and revolutionary fulfillment. A new people was born who had seen God in a human life, and who henceforth could understand the meaning of life only by seeing it in the light which came from the impact of Jesus upon men. To speak of revelation in the prophets and in Christ is not to speak then of some supernatural doctrine added to our human knowledge from an extrahistorical source. It is to speak of those happenings in human history which have so opened our eyes, and so transformed our minds that the disclosure of God to man has taken place.
What we shall try to say now about God and His gracious working for our good cannot be proved as a theorem. It is an interpretation of life based upon the experience of the Christian community. To share in the life of this community, to do its work, to hear its story, to read its Book, is the way to such knowledge of God as Christians have. We are not claiming exclusive knowledge of God for Christians. Nowhere has He left Himself without witness. 11 We are not claiming that what we have seen and testify to in our Christian experience is all the truth. What we do argue is that the human search for knowledge of the ultimate metaphysical truths, that is, for the reality on which all things depend for their being, and the Christian attempt to clarify what we have found disclosed to us in Christ, are two complementary sides of the same story, the story of God’s self-disclosure to the mind of man. There is one God, and the truth about Him must finally be the same for the philosopher who is a lover of wisdom as it is for the Christian believer who finds the Divine Logos in Christ.12
Say then that our theological task is to set forth how it is that God’s dealing with man can be described from the standpoint of Christian experience. When we say there is a creative and a redemptive work of God going on in human history what is the content of our words? What specifically are the activities of creation and redemption, and what are the demands they lay upon us?
God’s creation is His making the world, and His leading it toward fuller, finer life. Of the warp of space and the woof of time this existence of ours is woven, and held together in a dynamic whole. This does not commit us to the doctrine that this world-whole is an organic unity as we know it. It seems not to be, but rather appears as a fluid order with all sorts of variety, looseness, types of structure, ragged edges, clashing swirling power.13 But to be anything at all is to share in the total society of being. Whatever the truth in pluralism, there is this truth in monism: no world without a fundamental order which makes it a world.
This creation contains a thrust toward more complex, richer orders. To be a living thing is to become, to reach out restlessly, unceasingly, and in some measure creatively toward new life and new order. God is that reality in and through all things which makes possible the response of life to the lure of fulfillment beyond the present. 14
God the Creator we know as the power which binds the surging variety of life into richer and wider societies of mutual enjoyment and support. To be anything is to enter into social relations. Perhaps this is even true of electrons; it certainly is true of all living things, and supremely of men. But the good life is woven into these social relations. A purely individual and absolutely isolated enjoyment of appreciation is nothing at all. Emil Brunner defined hell in a recent lecture as being "the state of absolute loneliness." It is in the shared enjoyments and appreciations of social experience that real value emerges. God makes life good by creating communities in which life is so related to life that all the enjoyments, powers, and appreciations of each individual enhance the good of all the other members of the community. This is to see God’s presence in that
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society.15
While we affirm the creative work of God, in world-making, world-binding, and world-leading toward new communities of good, we have not identified God’s activity with the whole process of life. The poet’s "Some call it evolution, and others call it God" was a sincere expression of religious feeling; but it ignored the fact of evil. What we have said is that through the vast mystery of the whole world-process we are able to see the pervasive presence of the divine activity which makes this world the habitation of God’s creatures and, in some measure, of His good. More than this we cannot say about the total process of nature.
We are not the creator, but we can participate in and serve the work of creation. What we create will never be identical with what God is creating; but human intelligence and artistic skill and patient workmanship can serve and release His creativity. A discounting of the importance of disciplined human effort in meeting the problems of life will enfeeble any faith or religion, and it is not Christian. Reverence for the courageous intelligent response of human beings to the problems and demands of life, the patient discipline of the scientist, the integrity and creative expression of the artist, is a valid theme of Christian theology. If we discount it we fail to recognize what God has done in creating free beings whose resources He must enlist in the fight against evil.
What can faith say, then, in the face of real evil? This, that there is a divine strategy of redemption. There are four primary ways in which the redemptive activity of God becomes real to us. The first is in the destruction which He visits upon intolerable evil. It may appear strange to subsume the wrath of God, for that is what this means, under redemption; but the truth which we have to learn all over again is that without wrath there is no redemption. Wrath is not vengeance, not in the human resentful sense of that term. Wrath means that life has within it certain ineluctable structural principles which can be defied only at the risk of losing the good of life itself. When these are defied there is set in motion, whether in an individual life or in the social order, a chain of consequences which may take the form of vast destruction and misery; or which may work silently in the individual soul in the loss of the meaning of life, the fading of the glory, -- but it happens. Here is Lillian Smith’s description of what we have done to ourselves in America by trying to fence off one race from another:
We white people got into deep trouble long ago when we attempted to enslave other human beings. A trouble we have never faced fully and never tried with all our strength to solve. Instead, we have tried to push it away from us, and in trying, we have used a mechanism so destructive that it . . . has become a menace to the health of our culture and our individual souls. Segregation is a way of life that is actually a form of cultural schizophrenia. - - - It is a little chilling to note the paranoid symptoms of those among us who defend segregation; their violence, their sensitiveness to criticism, their over-esteem of themselves, their desire to withdraw from everything hard to face.16
The wrath of God works silently and swiftly, and because we are as insensitive as we are it is usually only when we have brought catastrophe on ourselves that we recognize it at all.
The second affirmation is that God’s redemption means the transmutation of evil and loss into new good, and higher fulfillment. There is a traditional doctrine that all evil, all pain, all suffering finally is used by God for His greater glory and our highest good. I doubt that we can say this on the basis of what we know.17 There does seem to be a real loss in life, else it is hard to see what the moral struggle and the costly sacrifices of love could mean. But this we do know, that there are ways in which real evil, a shattering illness, a tragic death, or a vicious social injustice can so enter into the deeper sensitivity of men that a higher and stronger moral and spiritual power is released.
Defeat may serve as well as victory
To shake the soul and let the glory out.18
We know this is strangely true even of moral defeat. The lesson of our dependence upon God; the fatuousness of our thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think comes hard. But there is an illumination and we can know that there is a patient, redemptive reality in and through all of life which transmutes real evil, real loss, real threats to the growth of human good into the deeper, more sensitive and more enduring goods of love and humility?19
Something more is necessary if we are to live with any real hope. Man, the free creature of God, who misuses his freedom, must know God’s forgiveness. That every man needs forgiveness, and that forgiveness is offered to every man, is the truth of the Gospel which is the hardest for us to accept. To believe this requires the acknowledgment in humility of God’s judgment. Yet it is absolutely necessary, for none of us is beyond this need.
The forgiveness of God is not a favor granted occasionally when we happen to need it; it is a continuing quality of His love which can hold our life together even in moral defeat. An analogy from human experience will help to clarify this. Forgiveness in human relations is something more than a series of particular acts of forgiveness. Jane Addams, who saw very deeply into human nature, expressed it when she said that in all wholesome human relations there is a forgiveness in advance. Human love, when it discovers its essence, discovers the spirit of reconciliation. There is the human counterpart of the mercy in the love of God, belief in which constitutes the heart of evangelical Christian faith. We come to know the forgiveness of God primarily through those personal relationships in which love is experienced as a mercy in which we axe moved by a power greater than ourselves. The Ritschlian theology won a truth for Protestant theology who won a truth for Protestant theology which ought never to be obscured when it made clear that the Christian community exists as that company of people who have experienced the forgiveness of God through what has come to them in Jesus.20 Jesus is the person through whom the mercy of God has been mediated to us men in our history. That is the fact. Josiah Royce with a quite different philosophical orientation from Ritschl expressed the same truth when he described the Church as the community which is sustained by its memory of the atoning deed of Jesus.21 What is supremely important here is that knowledge of God’s forgiveness does not depend upon a private and subjective illumination of the individual believer alone. It arises in the shared experience of the community of those who through Jesus of Nazareth and what has followed upon his life have discovered that God stands by man even when man is in the wrong. To stand by the wrongdoer and to suffer redemptively the consequences of his wrong is the meaning of forgiveness.
The liberal interpretation of the Gospel rarely did justice to the place of the divine forgiveness in human life. The liberal thesis that "the meaning of God in human experience" is the struggle of our better selves for moral mastery,22 should be qualified. God saves us from moral defeat by making it possible for us to know that the love which claims us is a love which forgives and remakes us in spite of our defeats in the moral struggle.
There is a final aspect of the work of redemption. It concerns the fate of the precious values of life and personality in the "perpetual perishing" of time and death. Whether we can believe that nothing valuable is ever wholly lost in the moving stream of time, we need not say. Quite possibly our human experience does not yield an answer. But Christian faith and human experience reveal that there is a treasuring of the passing goods of life, as each passing event gives itself to and becomes a part of the ongoing movement of life, and as every movement of time finds its particular niche in eternity. The limits of this redemption of good from the wreck of time through the possible participation of each moment in the eternal totality of all moments escapes our sight. But we do know that the past is embodied in the future. We do know, though to be sure this statement needs interpretation and defense in an analysis of the nature of time, that God’s "abidingness" in eternity is the necessary counterpart of His activity in time. The fact that something must persist through all time if time itself is to have any meaning is accepted by many thinkers who do not necessarily accept the presuppositions of Christian theology. Lewis Mumford, for example, affirms man’s participation in eternity:
Man’s earthly life, in short, involves the existence of another transcendental world: a world of durable meanings and values that in time detach themselves from the flux of history and loose their narrow ties to time and place.23
Mumford’s term "detachment" would in the view here adopted have to be qualified. God never allows the world to become completely detached from Himself; nor would a realm of a value completely severed from time and space have meaning for us. But there is detachment from the circumstances of particular times and places in the sense that particular values exemplify qualities and patterns which are of universal significance. The values of the symphonies of Mozart and the moral insight of Lincoln had to become embodied in actual material structures, that is, in the score of the symphony and in the acts of the man Lincoln, before they were real values. Once this beauty and this moral courage have become flesh and blood in our spatiotemporal world, the whole realm of value is thereby enhanced forever, for what is particular in these individual cases represents the concretion for all time of what before was only "possibility." We do not go beyond the bounds of what Christian experience has asserted if we say that God’s own being is qualified by whatever of good or ill has taken place among His creatures. God’s love does not change. But the "career" of His love in His dealing with the world involves a continual sifting of the evil from the good, a creative thrust toward a more complete exemplification of His good in existence, and, it is possible to believe, a treasuring for all time of the good which does come to be.
We keep our vision of God most nearly steady if we do not say that either His creative or His redemptive working is prior to the other in the disclosure He makes of Himself to us. Certainly the fullest knowledge of the Creator comes only through the encounter with the Redeemer. But truth about God’s goodness and power is revealed everywhere in the natural setting of human life, and this knowledge is not wholly perverted by sin. We stand by the validity of Paul’s declaration in Romans 1:19-20 that God’s majesty and power are visible in the creation, and in Romans 2:14-15 that the law of God has been written on the heart of those who have no knowledge of His revelation to the prophets of Israel.
Our description so far of these aspects of God’s work in the world is all prologue to the claim now to be stated which goes beyond what either liberalism or neo-orthodoxy have clearly affirmed, God does transform rebellious and self-sufficient men into persons who can begin to love their fellows. The power which works this transformation is released in the depth of personal life just at the point at which man finds his own self-righteousness shattered. and discovers that the mercy of God comes to him in his need. "If any man be in Christ he is a new creature, 24 says Paul. Here is the Gospel announced as it must be in the indicative mood and present tense. The consummation of the new life is to be sure always in some way beyond the actual. We are "saved by hope."25 But the ground of hope is the reality of release from that despair which robs even suffering of its meaning, the discovery of a new gratitude for life, the fact of a new humility, and the power of the will to begin to respond to the demands of life in the spirit of love. The personal discovery of the transforming mercy of God is the supreme source of power for the life of moral responsibility and creativity.
To state a belief does not prove it. The question of what evidence supports this Christian faith is full of subtle difficulties. No one description of the Christian life can do justice to all its complexities, to its continuing involvement in sin while it has yet begun to become whole. But here I am simply trying to say what it is that the Gospel is about. If the doctrine of the new life of the Christian is the hardest of all to believe, as in our disillusioned time it must be, still there can be no good news of Christ apart from the possibility that in some measure the life of love can actually be lived on this dark and bloody battlefield of human history.
Whatever the difficulties in making belief in the new life convincing, we can try to remove some misunderstandings of it. It should be underscored that the new life which flows from the experience of the redeeming mercy of God is a life of free creative effort in which all human powers are released from the shackles of a false piety and a crabbed moralism. A comment upon Dr. Eugene W. Lyman’s wise and balanced philosophy of religion may sharpen the point I am urging on the relation of redemption and creativity in life. Dr. Lyman says:
When one is seeking a point of view for a unified interpretation of religion the creative functioning of religion offers more promise than its redemptive functioning. For when creative religion confronts definite evils it inevitably becomes redemptive, whereas the transition from the redemptive functioning to the creative is not so inevitable26
Now surely neither transition is inevitable. Religion which stresses man’s creative power may become self-righteous and futile in the presence of tragic situations. Too much of the social gospel message failed precisely here. Certainly the experience of redemption may be drawn into the quicksand of moral and spiritual complacency. But the uniquely creative element in Christian experience is just the overflow of new life and power which come from the depths of that experience in which our human despair is met by the suffering love of God in all its majesty, humility, and holiness. Some of the evidence here lies in what the themes of the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection of the Christ who took upon himself the form of a servant have done to release cultural energies in Western civilization. We need only to recall the way in which the Christian drama of redemption has given life and passion to the creative arts, to painting, to music, to social ritual, and to the most difficult of all arts, those of doing good and securing justice.27 The secret of Christianity’s contribution to the cultural works of man is that in the Christian faith, with a clarity found in no other, we see that all of life, its evil as well as its good, has a meaning which supports an ultimate hope, if we but accept the truth which God has offered in Christ and begin to respond to it.
There is a word in the Christian vocabulary which expresses and covers the whole activity of God in human existence -- the word "grace." "By the grace of God," we say, thus paying sometimes a half-conscious tribute in secular speech to our ultimate dependence upon Him. The word "grace" has been almost mined for many thoughtful Christians because it has been mistakenly interpreted as if it means the sheer mercy of God descending upon man apart from any moral demand or human effort. But a doctrine of grace which destroys the freedom and moral responsibility of man is not the grace known in mature Christian experience. The New Testament emphasis is upon grace as forgiveness, but never as a substitute for repentance in its ethical dimensions. Now while grace means forgiveness, it is also the Christian term for the whole of God’s love in action. As Dr. Moffatt says: "Charis had been long upon the lips of men, and always . . . it had been one of the shining words that serve the world. Beauty, kindness, gratitude; charm, favour, thankfulness. These were the main facets of the fresh word."28 Another theologian summarizes the Christian use of the term: "Grace is the supreme causal agency by which Christian life everywhere is evoked, sustained, and augmented."29 The Edinburgh ecumenical conference provided this statement which could form the basis for the meeting of all Christian minds:
The meaning of divine grace is truly known only to those who know that God is love, and that all that he does is done in love in fulfillment of his righteous purposes. His grace is manifested in our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all in our redemption through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.30
All Christian doctrine of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is an attempt to say how the unity and the power of God’s saving activity are experienced in the impact of that one life upon mankind. Christ is the climax of creation, the incarnation of the Logos without which nothing is made, the restoration of the image of God, the divine love made real in a human spirit. But this is also a world in which Christ is crucified. Redemption must come on the other side of the rent in the creation, exposed by man’s rejection of love. God invades human history at the cost of suffering. Redemption is won as men find themselves judged, forgiven, and brought to repentance through the fact of God’s victory on the cross.
The grace of God is no simple solution to the plight of man. The Christian faith does not offer solutions in the utilitarian sense of that term. It offers new life, and power, and faith. The rediscovery of the meaning of grace has come to our time through the way of agony and despair. It remains for evangelical Christianity to state again with power the faith that grace is present, available, victorious over evil. We must show how we rightly understand our human history when we see the sign of the cross in all of it and over all of it. Then the Gospel will do for our time what it has done before to
rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
gather them up, and let them loose upon the earth.31
1) I have tried to support this statement in "Brunner and Barth on Philosophy," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, October, 1947.
2) This saying is cited and discussed in the paper just noted.
3) Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt, p. 91.
4) Dorothy M. Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking (London: Macmillan & Co., 1946), pp. 208-11.
5) Charles Hartshorne, Beyond Humanism (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937), p. 6.
6) Cf. A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936). "The functioning of one actual entity in the self-recreation of another actual entity is the ‘objectification’ of the former for the latter actual entity," p. 38.
7) Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941). While I do not share Professor Hartshorne’s idealistic theory of knowledge my indebtedness to his analysis of the idea of God is great.
8) A. C. Garnett, op. cit. Cf. his God in Us (New York: Harper & Brothers,1945).
9) John Baillie, Our Knowledge of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939), p. 178.
10) A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931), p. 275.
11) Acts 14:17.
12) I have dealt somewhat more fully with the methodological problem in "Theology and Truth," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XXII, No. 4, October, 1942, and "Truth in the Theological Perspective," The Journal of Religion, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, October, 1948.
13) Cf. William E. Hocking’s comment on Whitehead’s organismic metaphysics, Science and the Idea of God (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), pp. 108-9. Cf. Robert L. Calhoun, op. cit., p. 159.
14) Agreeing with both Hocking and Whitehead as to the significance of ideal possibilities in determining process, cf. William E. Hocking, Science and the Idea of God, p. 110.
15) Wordsworth, The Prelude, Bk. I, lines 341-44.
16) Lillian Smith, from a letter published in War and Post-War, issued by Louis Adamic, Vol. III, Nos. 9-10, September-October, 1944, p. 1.
17) Cf. John Bennett’s analysis of the problem in Christian Realism, Appendix.
18) Edwin Markham, "Victory in Defeat," from The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1945), p. 347. Reprinted by permission of Mr. Virgil Markham.
19) See Nels F. S. Ferré, Evil and the Christian Faith (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947).
20) A. Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation 3rd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), chap. viii. For criticism of the Ritschlian interpretation of forgiveness see Paul Lehmann, Forgiveness (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940).
21) Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914). See especially Lecture VI, Vol. I.
22) F. Ernest Johnson, op. cit., p. 85.
23) Lewis Mumford, The Condition of Man (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944), p. 148.
24) II Corinthians 5:17 Cf. Galatians 6:15.
25) Romans 8:24.
26) Eugene W. Lyman, op. cit., p. 12.
27) Francis H. Stead, The Story of Social Christianity (New York: George H. Doran, 1924), 2 Vols.
28) James Moffatt, Grace in the New Testament (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932), p. 21.
29) H. R. Mackintosh’s summary of Paul’s doctrine. "Grace" in James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910).
30) Edinburgh Conference on Faith and Order, chap. ii, p. i.
31) W. H. Auden, "In Time of War," The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (New York: Random House, 1945), p. 347. Reprinted by permission of Random House.