Chapter 24: Time, Progress, and the Kingdom of God by Daniel Day Williams
From God’s Grace and Man’s Hope by Daniel Day Williams. Copyright 1949, 1965 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. Used by permission of the publishers and Daniel Day Williams. Daniel Day Williams attended the University of Chicago, Chicago Theological Seminary and Columbia University. He is Roosevelt Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
The Christian faith that God works creatively and redemptively in human history does not contradict the facts of history. It is required by those facts when we see deeply enough into them. So we have asserted. We have argued that man’s bond with the ultimate structure of God’s good, and man’s dependence upon the working of God’s power is disclosed in the midst of the turmoil of our existence. We can discern the presence of the ultimate order of love even in the political orders where compromise, clash of interests, and warfare seem to prevail in disregard of the divine law. God’s Kingdom, which is the assertion of His love with power, does "press upon" the world at every moment. Yet even as we make this assertion we recognize that we live in actual estrangement from God. There is a dark reality of evil which sets the creation against God’s love, and turns the human heart upon itself. We are left therefore with the perplexity which we must examine in this chapter. Can we believe in the progress of the reign of God in history or is the ultimate conflict between His Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world unresolved to the end of time?
The question of progress involves the problem of the nature of time which has been hovering on the edge of our discussion and which must now be brought to the center of attention. Our life passes from birth to death. The world moves into its future, and moment by moment dies away. What is lost and what is saved in this everlasting passage? Does God’s Kingdom really grow in depth and fulfillment through the long sweep of the ages, or is that merely an outworn liberal notion which has brought liberal theology to its present extremity?
There are some who say that all attempts to speak of the course of events in relation to an indeterminate future are speculative and fruitless. Had we not better say "it doth not yet appear what we shall be" and go about our business unafraid and untroubled? Certainly humility and reserve are appropriate. No questions lead us so quickly beyond our depth as those concerning time. There is a certain practical wisdom in refusing to allow the fulfillment of today’s task to depend upon answers to obscure questions about tomorrow.
Yet to leave the matter there is not only superficial, it is paralyzing to action, for hope has practical consequences. Hope in the human spirit means its relation to the future before it, the eternity above it, and the saving of the precious values of its past. The depth and range of hope qualifies our sense of the worth of the present. I am in part what I hope for; for what I am is what I am willing to commit myself to, and that depends upon what I believe finally counts. As Professor Whitehead observes, "The greater part of morality hinges upon relevance in the future."1 I encounter my neighbor as one who shares with me the fate of death. If death destroys for me my hope, it also destroys my valuation of my neighbor. I can treat him as a bit of earth dust, to be exploited for whatever momentary benefit I can secure from him. But if my hope for all of life involves the belief that the good of life has eternal stature then I see my neighbor in a different light. Berdyaev is profoundly right in insisting that all ethics needs eschatology.2 One factor in the sickness of the modern world is the loss of confidence in any abiding significance of the transitory goods of life. For evidence we may cite the contemporary existentialist philosophy in which nothing matters but the moment of experience. Its consequence is the hell depicted in Sartre’s No Exit. The possibility that our civilization and perhaps even the human race itself might be destroyed in atomic warfare has but given new intensity to the problem which has always haunted man the creature.3
If hopelessness breeds paralysis of will, hope releases human energies. The causes which enlist men always give some assurance that what is to be sacrificed for will bear fruitful consequences in some new order. The dynamic of fascism, communism, and democracy is in each case related to a faith in which each individual can see his life linked with a significant future. Hitler promised the thousand year Reich, the Marxists believe in the inevitability of the classless society, Democrats proclaim the century of the common man.
The Christian interpretation of man’s pilgrimage in time cannot be put into a simple parallelism with these political philosophies. Christianity does not ignore the vision of a redeemed political order but it sets all political hopes in a perspective which relates each person and each historical fact to the ultimate community of all life with God. A Christian view of time and history which preserves the truth and rejects the illusion in man’s vision of history can organize and release human energies today as it did in the days of St. Augustine, and as it did in the bright days of the nineteenth century when the prospect of a reborn society on earth seemed to light the way.
If a new vision of man’s destiny is to come it will have to be founded on something different from the liberal theory of progress, and also something different from the complete rejection of that idea in contemporary theology. In this chapter I shall state the reasons for saying that the liberal doctrine will not do, and then try to save out of the liberal perspective the valid concept which it possessed. We can then examine the views of history of those who reject entirely the concept of the progress of man toward the Kingdom of God. Finally, we shall state the key concept by which a Christian conception of history can maintain fidelity to the facts and yield a more sobered but still hopeful view of the long pilgrimage of man.
The notion of a cumulative achievement of good in history which brings about in the world a more complete embodiment of the divine order was an integral part of the liberal Christian theology. What is often overlooked in the reaction against this doctrine is that the liberals formulated it in more than one way. Actually the conception of a cumulative achievement in our moral and religious experience is not easy to discard. Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, carefully insists that there are cumulative achievements on the plane of history.4 Paul Tillich, in his discussion of the idea of progress, distinguishes several spheres to which the idea may be related: the first is that of technical progress, the second, that of political unification, and the third, "the gradual humanization of human relationships." In these, he agrees, progress has actually taken place. But there are two areas where the idea of progress does not apply: There is no progress with respect to the creative works of culture or with respect to the morality of mankind. The first is impossible because creativity is a matter of grace, not of growth; the second is impossible because morality is a matter of free decision, and consequently not a matter of delivery and tradition.5
These distinctions are clarifying, yet if they are held without qualification they deny the truth that the liberal theology was groping for, even though it never set it free from an untenable doctrine of the progressive elimination of evil from human life. This judgment may be sustained by examining briefly some of the formulas by which liberals sought to interpret the progress of the Kingdom of God in history.
Professor Case’s The Christian Philosophy of History shows clearly the difficulties of interpreting history as the simple triumph of good men over evil men. His pattern is the liberal one:
God is working within history where he has willed that men should learn to be the efficient instruments of the divine energy. Upon their shoulders has been placed the responsibility for learning and pursuing God’s designs for bringing his Kingdom to realization on earth.6
History resolves itself into a conflict of good men with bad men. Badness is the result of a beastly strain "inherited perhaps from a Neanderthal man."7 Case does not quite say the complete eradication of evil will ever be accomplished but still "the accumulations of the years mount ever upward toward the goal of the good man’s desire."8
The moralism which makes possible such a neat separation between good and evil men, and which implies subtly that we who make the distinction are to be counted among the good cannot be refuted by argument. But once this simple removal of our own consciences from the sphere of judgment has been shaken, once we see the conflict between good and evil in its true depth in every human heart, a deeper view of history must be found if we are to have a hope based on solid foundations. Even on Case’s terms the question of the meaning of the whole process remains unsolved. What is the meaning of the life of an individual with all its suffering and frustration if it be but a stage on the way to some future consummation in an infinitely removed time? In what sense is life fulfilled now? The problem is especially acute when we recognize as Case himself does that "a closer scrutiny of the historical process shows that disasters overtake equally the righteous with the wicked."9 Christian liberalism must rewrite its philosophy of history with this fact given its full value. If we make a less simple distinction between the righteous and the wicked, and treat the problem of fulfillment in relation to the mystery of temporal flux and its relation to the abiding realities, then the Christian philosophy of history will stand upon the belief in a redemptive activity of God which wins its strange victory in spite of the continuing tragic character of the course of events.
The interpretation of cosmic progress which Whitehead offers in his Adventures of Ideas is not subject to quite the same criticism. He takes the fundamental conflict to be that between force and persuasion.
The history of ideas is a history of mistakes. But through all mistakes it is also the history of the gradual purification of conduct. When there is progress in the development of favorable order, we find conduct protected from relapse into brutalization by the increasing agency of ideas consciously entertained. In this way Plato is justified in his saying, ‘The creation of the world — that is to say, the world of civilized order — is the victory of persuasion over force."10
The progress of mankind can be measured by this yardstick. Note Whitehead’s insistence that conduct is "protected from relapse." The fact of progress was symbolized for Whitehead in the year he wrote, 1931, by the achievement of a peaceful settlement between Gandhi and the Viceroy of India.11
Waiving for the moment the far from settled question of the extent that Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolence were adapted to the particular social and cultural situation in which he found himself, we still must ask whether we can really see the vindication of hope for the higher values in a cumulative and secure achievement of orders of persuasion over brute force. Certainly the experience of the twentieth century confirms the fear that cultures of high moral sensitivity may yet relapse into incredible cruelty. Whitehead’s doctrine does not seem to square with his own view that there is an element of conflict and exploitation in the very structure of life. "Life is robbery."12 Nor does his view square with the contemplation of the tragic element in the vision of God with which his Process and Reality closes.13
The case may be put this way. If new configurations of power are always to be expected in the ongoing march of creativity, what reason have we to believe that the persuasive elements in life will not forever have to maintain a precarious existence amidst the formidable march of more ruthless powers? We must not discount the significance or worth of the "tendernesses" of life.14 We may well account them more valuable just because they are precious amidst staggering forces. Yet the evidence seems slim indeed that the history of the cosmos exhibits a universal and progressive taming of the elemental forces. Whitehead himself has called for the cleansing of dogma by the recourse to critical analysis of the evidence. His view of history has a romantic overtone which goes beyond the facts.
A similar difficulty is presented by John Macmurray’s attempt to combine a Christian-Augustinian doctrine of God’s sovereignty with a Marxist interpretation of the structure of historical development as leading inevitably toward the fulfillment of the good society. Macmurray gives content to the doctrine that man is created in the image of God by saying this means we are created for freedom and for equality. The community defined by these two concepts is what our human nature really craves, and what it must have if it is not to be in conflict with itself both within the individual and within society. Therefore, any social structure which separates men into classes produces overt conflict between classes. Out of these conflicts the more adequate order of freedom and equality must certainly emerge, for it represents the embodiment of the real structure of historical forces which possess ultimately irresistible power. In his Clue to History in 1939 Macmurray wrote:
It is the inevitable destiny of fascism to create what it intends to prevent — the socialist commonwealth of the world. The fundamental law of human nature cannot be broken. "He that saveth his life shall lose it." The will to power is self-frustrating. It is the meek who will inherit the earth."15
Macmurray himself seems to allow some sort of qualification of this determinism. He says that "unless progress can be stopped altogether" his prediction stands.16 But if stopping progress is a real possibility then the view that history is simply the carrying out of the intention of God must be restated.
All the paradoxes and difficulties of determinist views of history appear in Macmurray’s treatment of freedom. The achievement of the divine intention is inevitable; yet men are called upon to "make the effort" on which depends the future of Western civilization.17 If men must be rallied to "make an effort" in our historical period, an effort which they may fail to make, why may it not be so in every historical period? Macmurray’s interpretation of the course of history has the advantage which comes from a realistic acceptance of the fact of conflict and tragedy in history. Yet like its Marxist counterpart his view is utopian in outcome, and falls into the error of all utopianism, that of endowing some particular historical movement or group with a moral significance and purity which it does not rightfully possess. So Macmurray says:
Soviet Russia is the nearest approach to the realization of the Christian intention that the world has yet seen, for the intention of a universal community based on equality and freedom, overriding differences of nationality, race, sex, and "religion," is its explicit and conscious purpose.18
One does not have to indulge in hysterical anticommunist sentiment to detect the exaggeration and illusion in this statement.
Let us summarize the three difficulties which all theories of historical progress toward the Kingdom of God inherently involve, and at the same time try to extract from the liberal doctrine the element of truth which it certainly embodies.
There is, first, that aspect of the passage of time which makes it a threat to the enduring worth of all the particular carriers of value which we know. "Time is perpetual perishing," says Whitehead following Locke. If the worth of life is to be secured, we must find some sense in which, again in Whitehead’s words, the occasions of experience "live for evermore."19 No matter how we try to tell ourselves that each moment has its value regardless of its endurance, we cannot be indifferent to the fact that the running stream of time bears away all that we cherish. Unless religious faith faces the possibility that the human race on this earth is not a permanent fixture in the scheme of things, its hope must be forever based on concealment. The humanist Max Otto closes his survey of the human enterprise with words of ringing promise:
Oh, walk together children,
Don’t you get weary,
There’s a great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land.20
It is noteworthy that the humanist turns to the language of the religious tradition to express this conclusion. But on what basis does he hold out such a promise? We do not know what may be the fate of humanity in the course of cosmic history. The question of what may happen to life some billions of years from now is perhaps too remote to have any consequence in our thinking, except as it reminds us of the precarious situation of all life. Professor Gamow, the physicist, says our scientific knowledge gives us reason to expect that within some billions of years life will have been ended by the increasingly intense heat of the sun unless technical development may have made it possible to transport the race to some cooler portion of the universe.21 This speculation takes on grim present significance when we contemplate the possibility that humanity now may have in biological and atomic weapons the means to make earth uninhabitable.
Religious hope clings to something deeper than the continuing chance that something will turn up to keep life going. It also rests on something deeper than speculation about an infinitely prolonged life in the form of what is often meant by immortality of the soul. It depends upon the insight that the value of life is conserved by an enduring and healing fact, the fact of God. How this truth is to be expressed is indeed a perplexing problem.
Though the liberal doctrines of progress did not squarely face the fact that "nature intends to kill man," there was an element in the liberal view of the meaning of the temporal character of life which is valid. It is that the risk and adventure in the process of life is itself a meaning and a value. As Winfred E. Garrison has suggested, "being on the way" in some sense forms part of the goal of life.22
The passage of time is not wholly a sentence of death upon value; it is also the form of creative effort and moral achievement. Life in time is life in decision. Without decision there can be nothing of the spiritual stature which gives to our existence its real worth. If our life is merely an imitation of eternity then it is but a game, and of no consequence. Involvement in process is itself an enduring value. We cannot imagine any good without it. Certainly it is an error to suppose that process and progress are synonymous. But it is a valid insight to see process as integral to the spiritual character of our existence. It is significant that there are an increasing number of those who believe that God’s life itself must be conceived as having an element of adventure and movement into an open future, else we cannot conceive that He enters sympathetically into our human experience.23
The second problem in the theory of progress is involved in the fact of freedom. Reinhold Niebuhr points out the dilemma of liberal thought which has insisted on the freedom of man to guide his own life, and yet which has tried to imagine that this freedom will be progressively used only for the good. But moral freedom is freedom to rebel against the moral claim, and freedom of the spirit is freedom to rebel against God. The conclusion is inescapable that so long as man is free the risks of freedom must be admitted with all the possibilities of its misuse.
Even the most individualistic liberalism we may still say clung to an important insight in its conception of the meaning of freedom. The use of freedom is the participation of one life in the lives of others. Freedom means the opportunity to decide how one’s life shall enter into the continuum of conditions and consequences. We have no freedom to decide whether we shall "give our lives away" in the continuing social process. We are always giving them away either constructively or destructively. The meaning of life is participation in an ongoing flow of activities in which the good of all participants is either served or blocked.
In the philosophic tradition it is the idealists rather than the naturalists who have made the fullest place for this insight into the essentially social character of human existence, though contemporary naturalism as in Mead, Dewey, and Wieman has achieved a similar perspective. There is now emerging a reconciliation of the emphasis on individual freedom and the fact of the involvement of every creature in social structures. My life is not my own. It is the result of the creative activity of God in a stream of conditions and events far beyond the range of my knowledge. My conscious life is but a faint light shining out of a background of powers, processes, events, and memories. In every moment of life, I give my being back into the stream. I am actually in large measure what others can take me to be. My own self is completed only as others are affected by my being. I am passive to the social process in every moment and yet an active creator of it. Within this taking and giving the marvelous fact of free, responsible reflection and decision appears. Now this self which decides freely is not apart from the social process, but rather embedded in it. Yet in some degree it can in its own integrity freely choose what it shall accept and reject from the whole, and thus it chooses in part the way in which it shall enter into the experience of others. What I decide becomes a datum for others and the consequences of my decision a part of their objective world.
In some such fashion we can do justice to the elements of determination and freedom in our experience. Only individuals have minds, but each mind is what it is in large part because of what it has received from the group. Hence the group is something more than a collection of individuals’ minds; the group is a process in which individual minds are woven together in a dynamic pattern which tends to impose itself on each one.
The liberal gain in the interpretation of freedom can still be held. Freedom means the possibility to allow ourselves to be determined by that which is deepest in the process of life; and to relate our own lives to the ongoing whole in decisions made out of faith, hope, and love. Freedom is the opportunity to qualify the structure of life for ourselves and for others. It is the possibility of maintaining integrity by serving first the good of God and all other things second. To affirm this possibility is not to claim that in human experience it is ever perfectly actualized. But it is to recognize that our human decisions are made possible by our appropriation of the meanings, memories, hopes, and possibilities which become available to us in the history in which we live.
The judgment that there can be no progress in the moral realm is not defensible. Unless there be some cumulative and progressive development of the community of freedom, equality, and love among men it is impossible to give any adequate account of our common experience of sharing in the spirit and insight which comes to us from others. It is this sharing which makes our own moral decision possible. We are members one of another, even in moral experience. Every parent’s concern for the kind of environment in which his child grows up is testimony to this fact, even though we know that we can never guarantee the quality of life which will emerge in any free person.
The final problem for the progressive view is that of the actual fact of the persistence of evil in all the structures of human history. There are varieties of Christian experience with the evil in the self. For some the break with sin appears to be possible; for others, there is the continuing experience, "that which I would I do not, and that which I would not that I do." But in either case we cannot say that any life is beyond the power of temptation and sin. We know of no social order which does not show exploitation and injustice, none in which tragic choices do not have to be made. There is a rent in existence, and its name is evil. All that it means we cannot know. The Christian theologian, John Bennett, has powerfully stated this truth in his Christian Realism.24
While the belief in the cumulative processes of life permits us no superficial optimism, it does require the acknowledgment that the final meaning of evil cannot be known until all things are done. There is, we do know, a redemptive work of God through which past evil, while it remains evil, can enter into the creation of present good by qualifying our moral sensitivity, and deepening our valuation of life. There can be moral maturing through tragic experience bath for individuals and for whale peoples. Out of the suffering of the Hebrew people has come the moral power of the prophets and the spiritual reality of reconciliation between man and God.
Liberal theology made its contribution to theology through its affirmation of process as the most fundamental category of being. The Christian interpretation of the meaning of history becomes transformed when this conception is allowed to replace the metaphysics of static being. It should be possible to restate the Christian hope for God’s work with man in history from this new perspective without falling into the errors of those who allowed process to become too simply identified with progress.25 But before we come to our constructive statement, it is necessary to examine the alternative treatment of this problem in neoorthodox thought today.
An alternative to the interpretation of history as process is offered today in those Christian theologies which have been influenced by existential philosophy which has its primary source in Kierkegaard. It is argued that process metaphysics takes the measured or clock time of physics and identifies it with the time which is relevant to human decisions and to freedom. This identification is said to be untenable. The time form of freedom is another structure, related in some way to clock time, but never to be identified with the sequential order of natural processes. Nicolas Berdyaev who affirms the existential point of view summarizes the position: "There are three times: cosmic time, historical time; and existential time." Cosmic time is symbolized by the circle, it is calendar or clock time. Historical time is that of memory and prospect. It is always broken. The moments pass away and are not fulfilled. Its symbol is the line. Berdyaev says:
Existential time must not be thought of in complete isolation from cosmic and historical time, it is a break-through of one time into the other. . .Existential time may be best symbolized not by the circle or by the line but by the point. . . . This is inward time . . . not objectivized. It is the time of the world of subjectivity, not objectivity. . . . Every state of ecstasy leads out from the computation of objectivized mathematical time and leads into existential qualitative infinity.26
These distinctions appear in various forms in Kierkegaard, Cullman, Minear, Niebuhr, and Tillich, and in each case they are used for the interpretation of the Biblical world view. And in each case the history of salvation is interpreted as belonging to a superhistory which is something superimposed upon the cosmic process.
Let us try to formulate as accurately as possible what is being affirmed in this existential theory. When man confronts the question of the meaning of his life he finds that the question can only be answered if he sees that he is related to a transcendent reality, a God whose being is of a different order from that of all creatures and processes in our experience, who is the "unconditioned" ground of all being, to use Tillich’s phrase. Since the meaning of life lies in man’s relation to God so conceived, the dimension of our being with which religion is concerned involves something other than any experienced process immanent in existence. The meaning of life cannot be measured in relation to a structure of value discoverable in our existence. When we speak therefore of Creation, of God’s purposes, of the times in which God reveals Himself, and when we speak of the end of all things, the coming of the Kingdom, we use temporal terms but we are not speaking of events to which a date can be assigned. To be sure in the case of the revelation in Jesus Christ, to take the most important example, the time of salvation is intimately connected with an actual historical period and date. But we are speaking of a realm of meaning which is not bound by the categories of historical experience. We can apprehend the meaning of what we say only in the moment and in the act of decision or, as Berdyaev says, in ecstasy. The ultimate reality upon which our hope depends is therefore the eternal truth and power of God, breaking into the flow of historical events, qualifying it, transforming it, yet always to be understood as giving meaning to life through its relation to that which is beyond the time form of the world process.
So far at least I understand Kierkegaard and his followers. This standpoint represents the sharpest possible challenge to the liberal theology with its affirmation that the natural processes are the locus of God’s redemptive work; and that the meaning of life is organically involved in the emergence of orders of value in history.
This problem is so fundamental to the whole question of the nature of Christian hope and the existential analysis is so widely influential that I propose to examine Kierkegaard’s formulation more closely and to offer a criticism of it.
Soren Kierkegaard is the most important source and the magnificent genius of existential philosophy. If a reconstruction in theology which is neither liberal nor neo-orthodox is to emerge it will have to define itself against Kierkegaard even as Kierkegaard defined himself against Hegel. And it will, I believe, learn much from Kierkegaard as he learned much from the great idealist.
Hegel’s philosophy is a thoroughgoing and grandiloquent attempt to conceive the whole of world history as a process exhibiting a rational structure. It is the spirit coming to self-consciousness, God realizing Himself in human society. That Hegel badly overstated and overworked his thesis is universally recognized. He did have a profound sense of the tragic and the ironic in human affairs. He was not a naive optimist; but he did not avoid the idolatry of identifying the absolute will of God with the Prussian state in which he happened to live and work.27
Kierkegaard’s work is a sustained and passionate protest against the Hegelian system, and against what Hegel made out of human history, and out of Christianity. Where Hegel saw continuity and rational pattern, Kierkegaard saw discontinuity and paradox. Hegel and his followers felt intellectually secure in the logical structure which underlay the System. Kierkegaard attacked this complacency with savage irony and invective. When Hegelianized theology became the means of fortifying the complacencies of the established Christian Church, Kierkegaard literally poured out his life in a struggle to expose what to him was a betrayal of the Christ who suffered and died that men might repent.
For Kierkegaard the human soul is poised on the knife edge of lostness. He tried to break through Hegelian objectivity to the inwardness and suffering of personal existence. No Christian before him, and perhaps none since, has so profoundly expressed the desperation of the soul’s search for a rock of faith which will hold firm in the midst of the complete insecurity of human existence. These things Kierkegaard felt, and he said them with a penetration of the human heart and a consummate artistry rarely equaled in either philosophical or theological writing. I do not see how one can read him and remain the same person. We turn eagerly to learn the secret of that leap of faith which gains assurance of God and through which a man becomes a disciple of the Christ who is contemporary with every age.28
Just here the perplexities begin. Kierkegaard describes this movement toward God, or this being met by God, in terms which remove it from any recognizable human experience. He insists that his philosophy makes a place for real becoming where Hegel’s "becoming" is all shadow play.29 Becoming is defined by Kierkegaard as "a change in actuality brought about by freedom."30 But this becoming takes place in the moment of existential time. It is no process in the time sequence of human events. "If a decision in time is postulated then . . . the learner is in error, which is precisely what makes a beginning in the moment necessary."31 The knife of existential analysis cuts cleanly between the past and present in describing the new birth. "In the Moment man also becomes conscious of the new birth, for his antecedent state was one of non-being."32
What is this movement which takes place outside of time; which is a leap from non-Being to Being without even so much as the Hegelian dialectical logic to connect the two stages? The closest Kierkegaard comes to giving a philosophical answer is his notion of repetition. The Socratic "recollection" will not do, for that is recall of something temporally past. There must be a movement toward eternity which is movement toward realization but not in a temporal sense. This he calls repetition. This concept never received very clear definition from Kierkegaard but we are perhaps not far wrong if we say that repetition is man’s free enactment of his relationship to eternity. For example, Kierkegaard is "repeating" Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in his renunciation of his fiancee. In any case this conception cannot be made intelligible. Kierkegaard himself says that this category is the "interest upon which metaphysics founders."33 The whole continuum of conditions and consequences in time is set aside. For the religious movement it does not exist.
Four unhappy consequences flow from Kierkegaard’s doctrine of time. They have not been escaped in the neo-orthodox movement which he has greatly influenced, though some of his exaggerations have been sharply qualified. We should consider in our time of theological ferment what price must be paid for the existential doctrine that ultimate meaning belongs only to the Moment, that is, to a time which is other than the time of the world-historical process. It is, I suggest, too high a price, both in the loss of rational coherence, and in loss of the relevance of religious faith to human problems.
The first consequence is Kierkegaard’s extreme individualism. He declared his category was "the solitary individual" and desired these words inscribed on his tomb.34 It is, to be sure, something of a relief in the midst of today’s sentimentalitics about "fellowship" to hear Kierkegaard affirm that fellowship is a lower category than the individual.35 But he overshot his mark. He practically ignored the significance of life in the social process, and in the religious community. This was not accidental. Our common-sense view of time regards it as the form of social process. It is the order which links past with future in the continuum of influences and consequences. But Kierkegaard’s "Moment" is apart from all this. In the crisis of decision a man may think of himself as freed from all external relations. So Kierkegaard apparently thinks. But this is an illusion. It is a distortion of the facts to say that "the disciple who is born anew owes nothing to any man but everything to his Divine Teacher."36 We are not solitary individuals, even in the moment of decision. What happens in the moment of choice owes much to our inheritance from the communities in which our lives are lived. Kierkegaard’s own individualism is partly explicable in relation to his experience of discovering that he was not "like the others."37
The issue here joined with existential philosophy involves much more than philosophical technicalities. It is a matter of life and death to our civilization that we recover what it means to possess freedom in community. Real freedom belongs not to the isolated individual, but to the person who can maintain his individuality and integrity even as he accepts his interdependence with other life. If theology is to illuminate the life of the human spirit it must interpret both the fact of man’s capacity to judge society from a point of view which transcends all achieved cultural values, and also the fact of that social solidarity which in the religious community makes the prophetic critic possible. Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke for their people Israel even as they spoke against them.
The second consequence is that the time-form of religious decision is divorced from the time-form of political and social effort. Kierkegaard confesses he knows and cares nothing about politics. Amusingly he says his acquaintances charge him with being politically "a nincompoop who bows seven times before everything that has a royal commission." It is not altogether a satisfactory answer that he is serving the kingdom which "would not at any price be a kingdom of this world."38 The question of responsible decision in the political order remains. To say that "there exists only one sickness, sin,"39 and to pour scorn on all political movements produces a simplification of human problems, and in some instances prophetic judgment; but it also leaves the manipulation of social and political institutions which do make and break lives of people to whatever shrewd and ruthless schemers may get social power.
A third consequence follows inevitably. Kierkegaard denies all meaning to moral progress in history. The sharpness of his analysis enables us to recognize the real problem but it also discloses the inadequacy of his answer. He holds that all ages and times stand under the same judgment of God. "Every generation has to begin all over again with Christ."40 He contrasts the idea of the Church Militant in which the Christian stands in opposition to his culture, with the idea of the Church Triumphant (on earth), in which the Christian is honored and rewarded for being a Christian. The first he believes is Christianity, the second hypocrisy.41 Therefore, "if the contemporary generation of believers found no time to triumph, neither will any later generation, for the task is always the same and faith is always militant."42
Now in one sense the task is always the same. It is to transform men who try to live life apart from God into men who begin to trust God. No human progress can change the fundamental necessity of that movement in every age and time. But it does not follow that all societies and cultures offer equally adequate contexts for making the transformation possible for more and more persons. The Church grows in a time of persecution. But we do not therefore work for the creation of a society so inhuman and unjust that any who seek justice and love will be cast into prison, tortured and killed. Let us substitute our own paradox f or Kierkegaard’s. The task of serving the Kingdom of God will always be the same. But that task includes the everlasting effort to bring decency and justice into human society. While that aspect of the task is never finished, it is not without its real successes, or its hope for greater ones.
A final consequence of Kierkegaard’s view is that it becomes inconceivable how God can share in the actual processes of human experience. "The eternal . . . has absolutely no history."43 Therefore, we can make nothing of the conception of God as patient and suffering worker. The meaning of our existence as unfinished creatures in a life which has its times of planting and its times of reaping becomes an insoluble riddle. I do not say Kierkegaard accepts this conclusion in all respects. But it is inherent in his view of time.
Many of the extreme consequences of Kierkegaard’s position are avoided by those contemporary theologians who have gone through existentialism to the reconstruction of Biblical theology, and who have sought to discover, usually with Kierkegaard’s help, the "unique time-consciousness" of the Bible.44
This assertion that there is a distinctive time-consciousness in the Biblical world view is made by Professor Paul Minear. His studies in Biblical theology show that there is in the Bible the basis for a corrective of the exaggerated individualism of Kierkegaard. The Bible grows out of historical experience and its world view involves a profound sense of the meaning of the life of peoples, their hopes and expectancies, their time of crisis, and their ultimate destiny. But Professor Minear’s interpretation of the Biblical outlook falls short just at the point where he insists on reading the Bible through the eyes of Kierkegaard.
Minear points out that the Bible speaks of time in two senses, which are usually designated by two different words, chronos and kairos.45 Chronos refers to calendar time, kairos to historical and eschatological time. The "kairos" is the "crucial stage in destiny." It is the time of decision which involves man’s ultimate destiny.
It is characteristic of the tendency of neo-orthodox thought, even when it returns to the Biblical conception of time, to make the distinction between kairos and chronos too sharp. The distinction is made in such a way that chronos, the day-by-day time which is the form of our human existence, is either treated as irrelevant to the issues of man’s salvation, or else it is regarded as the sphere of death and frustration from which we must be saved. Minear seems to be imposing a metaphysical distinction on the Bible when he says that the coming of Christ means that "the tyranny of chronos has been broken once and for all. It stands under the all-encompassing negation of God’s judgment. Its boundary has been set by the manifestation of a ‘wholly-other order of reality.’"46 But why, we ask, must chronos be negated? Is it wholly evil in God’s sight or man’s experience that there should be times and seasons? Does the Bible really separate a calendar time which is the sphere of tragic frustration from a time which is wholly different? It appears rather that the Bible views the history of the Hebrew people, the life of Jesus, and the life of the Church as sharing in one continuous working of God in which every aspect of human life and its natural environment has its necessary and fruitful role to play. There are difficulties indeed with the Biblical eschatology; but some of them arise precisely from the fact that the Biblical world view did not contemplate a distinction between two orders of time. The world, it is said, was created in six days. The end of the world is an event expected before those now living pass away. When the Apostle Paul says, "It is far on in the night the day is almost here," and when John says, "It doth not yet appear what we shall be,"47 they transcend the distinction between chronos and kairos. Both are within the sphere of God’s redemptive purpose. It is difficult to see how, if God’s relationship to the world is "wholly other" than the relation of creative spirit to its actual working in time (chronos), we can avoid discounting the Christian significance of creative effort, patient workmanship, and that careful assessment of conditions and consequences which make up so large a part of the wisdom of life.
Such an outcome which is both un-Biblical and irrational can be avoided by a restatement of the meaning of time. The concrete reality of life is the community of created beings in their individuality and their togetherness. This community moves in a continuous stream from the past into the future. God is the supreme and uncreated member of this community. We are therefore members of Him and of one another. The time structure of this interweaving of processes is duration. This is time as the order characterizing the flow of process.
Chronos, then and kairos are abstractions. They are structures which our minds can distinguish in the concrete reality for the purpose of speaking intelligibly about it. Kairos abstracts the elements of meaning, valuation, purpose, and expectation. Both terms designate something less than the full meaning of duration which escapes adequate interpretation. Yet on this view we can say that God enters into the experience of man. Both chronos and kairos have meaning for God. Professor Hartshorne’s statement of the relation of God to time saves what is intellectually and religiously meaningful in the Biblical conception.
God is the cosmic "adventure" (Whitehead integrating all real adventures as they occur, without ever failing in readiness to realize new states out of the divine potency, which is indeed "beyond number" and definite form, yet is of value only because number and form come out of it.48
It follows that one dimension of the meaning of the Christian life is our share in world-building. It means we accept the process of becoming with all the tasks of politics, education, and reconstruction, as the area where some of God’s work gets done. We may thus preserve a unity in life. Such unity is lost if we say that the time in which we prepare today for tomorrow is of another and lesser order from the time in which we encounter God.
When we attempt to do justice to all aspects of the problem of the nature of progress in human history we discover we must try to hold two truths together. The first is that our life is a process. Every moment of experience enters into and qualifies the continuous stream of life in and through which God works. The second truth is that there is a cleft which runs through the whole of our existence. Possibilities remain unrealized. There is real evil, and real loss. We live on the boundary line between the actual and the potential good. We cannot see the whole, or the end. Life resembles a poem the last line of which has not been written. Yet the meaning of the whole depends upon it. We know what it is to participate in God’s cumulative victory over the chaos of existence. Yet the victory is not yet won. We know that God works creatively and redemptively to overcome all that estranges us from Him. Yet we continually cry out, How long, O Lord how long?
It is absurd to think that a simple formula can interpret the mystery of man’s pilgrimage. But the discussion so far suggests the possibility that a new Christian perspective on history may be emerging which will hold together the truth in the liberal doctrine of progress and the truth in the neo-orthodox affirmation of the judgment of God upon all existing things. We have now reached the point in our argument where the proposed synthesis can be formulated. Every interpretation of the meaning of history has its guiding image. We need a key concept with which to draw together the many strands of truth about one history. There is such a concept in the New Testament. Both liberalism and neo-orthodoxy have done it less than justice. It is the concept of our present history as proceeding under the reign of Christ. But the Christ who reigns in our history is embattled with his enemies. The Biblical source of this image is Paul’s word in the eschatological passage of I Corinthians 15. "He must reign till he hath put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."49He has already despoiled the principalities and powers in the victory of the cross yet he remains the embattled Christ, contending with all things which stand in the way of God’s fulfillment of His redemptive work.50 Professor John Knox summarizes the Biblical view of our human situation after Christ has entered our history in the life and death of Jesus:
Sin is doomed and its power is weakened, but it has not been actually destroyed: salvation has already been bestowed in Christ, but the fulfillment of that salvation awaits Christ’s return in glorious power to bring to completion his victory over sin and death and to inaugurate fully and finally the Kingdom of God.51
Biblical concepts should not be strait jackets for the mind, but wings for it. They guard in metaphorical terms the fundamental insights which have come through God’s revelation to the prophets, and through the impact of Jesus upon the world. We can use the conception of the embattled reign of Christ as a guide to a reformulation of the Christian view of history. In the end this symbolic expression can have just so much meaning for us as we can give it through specifying that in our experience which bears it out. It is a Christian symbol which can form the key to a more realistic theology than that which conceived of "building the Kingdom of God in history." It is a symbol which can be the basis for understanding between the American social gospel and the Continental insistence that God’s Kingdom cannot be identified with human schemes. It can be the basis for a realistic expression of the Christian hope. We know that we live as sinners in social structures and spiritual climates which corrupt our souls, and which plunge us toward horrible catastrophe. But we know also that these powers have not the last word. They can be broken. They have been exposed through the revelation culminating in Jesus Christ. We could not even recognize them for what they are if we were not living in the beginning of a new order where love dwells.
Let us be specific about what it means to say we live in that history which is determined by the reign of Christ in conflict with his enemies.
We mean, first, that through what God has accomplished in the events which came to their climax in the life of Jesus our human existence has been given a new structure. Creative and redemptive power has been released in it which was not wholly released before. We see a meaning in life which was not so fully discerned before. There is a new community in history. Members of that community begin to live on the basis of what has taken hold of them through the life of Jesus.
The reign of Christ, then, is that period in human history which is interpreted by Christians through what God has done in the life of Jesus to disclose the ultimate meaning of our existence. That meaning is life in the community of love. It is the logos of our being. The logos is God Himself known to us under the form of the Christ-figure.52 There is an endless variety of ways in which men respond to this disclosure of God. They may ignore it, reject it, despise the view of life to which it gave rise. Or they may begin to live life in response to the truth and power there given. What is given to us through God’s revelation includes the ethic of outgoing and forgiving love. It includes the knowledge of our radical dependence upon God’s grace which goes out to those who are not worthy of it. It includes the depth and mystery of the suffering of God known to us through the suffering of Jesus upon the cross. And it includes the new life of the Christian as the enactment of the way of love in a community of those who live in this faith. It is possible to speak of such a life only because we acknowledge that it depends wholly upon our participation in the working of God which is infinitely deeper than anything we can define or control. Only as Christ reigns can we serve one another in love.
While we affirm the release of the power of God as the meaning of the reign of Christ it must be understood that that power is no arbitrary and ruthless force. Certainly it is true that God does exercise coercive power. We cannot escape that fact when we look at the way in which the structures of life coerce us, smash our plans, seize us in the grip of their inevitabilities. God is not identical with those structures but His wrath is in them as they are related to the ultimate structure of value which is His own being. But God also works persuasively; and His supreme resource is not coercive force, but the compelling power of His revelation in the Suffering Servant of all. The Christ who reigns asserts God’s power as truly in the washing of the feet of the disciples as in the condemnation of the Pharisees. He transforms the world as he dies upon the cross, even as he transforms it in expelling the money-changers from the temple. We should not absolutize any one event in the life of Jesus as disclosing the way in which God’s love must work. The ethical implications of this position we shall shortly examine. But here it is necessary to point out that when we speak of the reigning Christ we do not mean the monarchical concept of an arbitrary exercise of power. Christ reigns supremely because he reigns from his cross.53
This conception of the reign of Christ includes the universality of his meaning for human existence. Here is the bridge between the social gospel and the neo-orthodox theology. There are not two kingdoms, one an inner kingdom of Christ related only to believers, and another a kingdom of this world which God has left to other powers, and upon which His love makes no immediate demands. That conception was destroyed long ago by the social gospel with its affirmation of the Christian concern with the structure of human society. It is also being vigorously criticized by the continental theologians today. Karl Barth himself perhaps even fell into an exaggerated identification of a political cause with the cause of Christ in some of his writings during the war.54 In any case the Christian affirmation is that the reign of Christ involves a demand for justice and freedom throughout the whole of life. Nothing less than the whole is the field of God’s redemptive work.
In the second place, to live in the reign of Christ means to share in an actual and continual victory of good over evil. It is one thing to recognize that evil is never eradicated from the self or from society. But it does not follow that good never triumphs over evil. The fact is quite the contrary. There would be no world at all, if there were not a continual realization of good. Every achievement of good is in so far a victory over evil, either over the evil of chaos and meaninglessness, or the evil of actual obstructions to the growth of the real good. Christians ought always to take heart. It is not true that there are no historical gains making for a humanity which more nearly exemplifies the image of its creator. There is always something to be done in the service of God under the reign of Christ. While we have admitted we cannot from our human point of view guarantee the permanence of any created good we know; we do know that wherever conditions of slavery, ignorance, and established privilege have been broken there is a gain which man can surrender only at the cost of denying that which is deepest in himself.
Perhaps men will deny their own will for life in community. The reign of Christ is always an embattled reign. Our third assertion is that we know nothing of the working of God in the world except in relation to real opposition. Christ’s reign is embattled in the human spirit, in the social structures, and in the Church which is his own body in the world. Protestant hope for the Church is not based upon any notion of its freedom from the corruptions of sin. It is based on the fact that in the Church among all human communities men can most directly appeal to the reigning Christ’s judgment upon the community itself. The Church is not the Kingdom of God. It is the people who live by faith in the Christ who reigns against an opposition which exists even in those who have begun to serve him.
Christ is embattled with untruth. Our perspective applies in the realm of knowledge. "Now we see through a glass darkly."55 We speak of the very essence of God’s being. We know He is love. Yet we know that all human constructions in which we try to grasp this essence are inadequate.
The struggle with evil goes on "until Christ has put death under his feet." So far as we know human history will always be the scene of contending powers. But the conception of the reign of Christ contains a hope which looks beyond all the particular victories which God continues to win. This is our fourth assertion. Our hope is that the good which comes to be is not lost, but participates in the continuing life of God and thus shares in His ultimate victory. A consummation of history in which evil is finally purged and destroyed is beyond our power even to imagine. Hope does not depend upon it, though it may include it. But we do know that it means to share in a victory of God over the world in the sense that through faith in Him and His ultimate mercy we are reconciled to the conflict in which we stand. We believe that not only our present victories but even our failures can be transmuted into good. We believe that good is everlasting in God.
The question of the ultimate outcome of history involves the meaning of the Kingdom of God. We distinguish between the reign of Christ and the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom is always present in history for it is His assertion of His love with power. It has come among us in Jesus Christ, whose reign is God’s reign. But the Kingdom of God is also a symbol for the fulfillment of love in all things. That fulfillment is beyond the reign of Christ. It is an eschatological concept. It symbolizes an ultimate victory which we can know only as promise and share only in hope. Thus the concept of the reign of Christ enables us to make a clear distinction between what our human works achieve in history and the community of God’s love in its perfect fulfillment. His Kingdom is always judgment upon our works, even while it is manifest in His power in our midst.
To live as a believer in the reign of Christ means to live within the battle not apart from it. It is no sham battle. But to believe that Christ reigns within the battle is to find peace. We know that God has His own strategy for bringing good out of evil. As believers we begin to live in a new history where love is accomplishing its perfect work, though this new history is never separate from the old. Again Paul’s words express both the continuing struggle and the everlasting victory:
We are pressed on every side, yet not straitened; perplexed, yet not unto despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; smitten down, yet not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus maybe manifested in our body.56
With this interpretation of the Christian philosophy of human history we have reached the affirmation upon which our entire argument rests. Christian hope which gathers up all particular human hopes and yet is deeper than they is founded upon the fact of the present creative and redemptive working of God in human life. It remains to show what this implies for individual ethics, for social ethics, and for the progress toward spiritual maturity of the Christian.
1. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology.
2. N. Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1937), 317ff.
3. Cf. Joseph Haroutunian, Wisdom and Folly in Religion (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1940), 35-36.
4. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, passim, (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1941).
5. The Kingdom of God and History, ed. J. H. Oldhan (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1938), 113-114.
6. S. J. Case, The Christian Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943), vi.
7. Ibid., 213-215.
8. Ibid., 218.
9. Ibid., 221.
10. Adventures of Ideas 30-31.
11. Adventures of Ideas 205.
12. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 160.
13. Ibid., "‘We are therefore left with the final opposites joy and sorrow, good and evil. . . (518). "Thus the universe is to be conceived as attaining the active self-expression of its own variety of opposites" (531).
14. For a development of this theme of Whitehead’s see B. E. Meland, Seeds of Redemption (New York: Macmillan, 1947).
15. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939, 237.
16. Ibid., 220.
17. Ibid., xi.
18. Ibid., 206.
19. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 126, 533.
20. The Human Enterprise (New York: Appleton-Century-Crafts, 1940), 369; cf. his Natural Laws and Human Hopes (New York: Henry Holt, 1926).
21. The Birth and Death of the Sun (New York: Penguin Books, 1945), 104-105, 154.
22. "Reflections on the Goal of History," The Christian Century, LV, 2 (1938), 959.
23. This truth has been most clearly expressed in Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God.
24. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941, Appendix.
25. This confusion seems to me patent in W. H. Sheldon, America’s Progressive Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942).
26. Slavery and Freedom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), 257, 260-261.
27. For incisive criticism see Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, 116-118.
28. Philosophical Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, , 44ff.
29. Repetition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 29.
30. Philosophical Fragments, 64.
31. Ibid., 41.
32. Ibid., 15.
33. Repetition, 34.
34. Training in Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), 57.
35. Ibid., 216.
36. Philosophical Fragments, 14.
37. The Point of View, trans. W. Loxvrie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), 81.
38. The Attack upon "Christendom" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), 44.
39. Training in Christianity, 65.
40. Ibid., 109.
41. Ibid., 205 ff.
42. S. Kierkegaard, 91.
43. Ibid., 62.
44. Paul S. Minear, "Time and the Kingdom," The Journal of Religion, XXIV, 2 (April, 1944), p. 85. Cf. his Eyes of Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1946), Oscar Cullmann, Christus und die Zeit (Zurich: 1946), and Karl Barth, Credo. For analysis of contemporary literature on the eschatological problem see Amos Wilder, "The Eschatology of the Gospels in Recent Discussion," The Journal of Religion, XXVIII, 3 (July, 1948).
45. Ibid., 81.
46. Ibid., 83.
47. I John 3:2; Romans 13:12.
48. Man’s Vision of God, 227-228.
49. I Corinthians 15:25-26.
50. Colossians 2:15.
51. Christ the Lord (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945), 123. Cf. W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Kingship of Christ (New York: Harper & Brothers. 1948).
52. John 1:1.
53. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Kingship of Christ, 17.
54. See a comment on Barth’s interpretation of the war in a letter by E. G. Homrighausen in The Christian Century, LVI (May 24, 1939), 678.
55. I Corinthians 13:12.
56. II Corinthians 4:8-12.